Blue baby shoes are dropped and a woman’s red scarf is ripped away by the wind as nearly two dozen refugees struggle forward under heavy loads and on tired feet. Minutes later, they will walk into Canada unsupervised, joining hundreds of African migrants who have fled north from the United States this year.
The refugees, many from Somalia, have been crossing an unguarded section of the Canadian border in northwest Minnesota on an almost daily basis for months now, an influx that has tested the Liberal government’s commitment to welcoming asylum seekers as it seeks to manage security concerns and preserve delicate ties with the United States.
Many of those crossing the border have done so in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s hard stance against refugees and his administration’s perceived bias against Muslims, including the President’s executive order temporarily blocking refugees and travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, an order since suspended by the courts. Along with Manitoba, Quebec has seen a spike in the number of refugee claimants entering from the United States illegally.
In the hours before dawn on Sunday, at least 19 refugees made the trek along a little-used American road that meets the border near the Manitoba community of Emerson, where hundreds of asylum seekers entered Canada last year. Greg Janzen, reeve for the municipality of Emerson-Franklin, said that 22 asylum seekers are known to have crossed the border between Saturday night and Sunday morning.
The crossing is perilous: Emerson firefighter Jay Ihme, who has specialized medical training, said he has treated about a dozen refugees this year alone, some of whom have had frostbitten fingers and toes.
Like many of the Somalis who walked into Canada Sunday, Abdullahi Warsame mentions one name when asked what has pushed him on this dangerous journey from the United States: Trump.
Somalia was one of the seven countries targeted by the President’s travel ban. Many of the African refugees said that they now feel threatened in the United States.
“This is due to Trump. We have to go to Canada, the U.S. is no good,” said a man from Djibouti who feared sharing his name because he hadn’t applied for refugee status yet.
He was leading a group of six, which included a child and a baby.
As the stream of refugees from the United States continues, criticism has hit the federal government from both sides of the political spectrum, with prominent Conservatives calling for stronger border enforcement and refugee advocates urging the government to open Canada’s doors to the asylum seekers.
“We call upon the government to develop a plan to enforce, and if necessary, strengthen our laws to stop this,” tweeted federal Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel on Sunday, in response to a news story about Emerson’s refugee influx.
Others have called for Canada to scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States, which requires migrants to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach, with some exceptions, preventing most people who have been living in the United States from making a refugee claim at a legal Canadian border crossing.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in the area told The Globe and Mail that they were not deporting any Somalis caught near the border, but were only checking identification to search for any outstanding warrants.
In Emerson, meanwhile, residents are growing weary of the overnight visitors pouring into the small border town.
“I guess people kind of want to be left alone,” said Mr. Janzen, the reeve.
“I wouldn’t say they’re scared, I’d say they’re concerned that this is going on for longer than they would like.”
Some refugees have woken residents up by knocking on their doors in the middle of night, asking to call 911, Mr. Janzen said.
“I’m not saying people don’t want to help,” he said. “[Refugees] coming into Canada legally, they are supportive. That’s the key word – legally.”
“If some of these people’s lives have been saved, there’s a gratification in that. But I want to stress that there has to be a better way than the way they’re getting into the country now.”
For all the local frustration, many refugees brimmed with gratitude on Sunday morning as they approached the Canadian border.
Mr. Warsame, a 45-year-old Somalian, is bundled up against the cold as he walks toward Emerson with two more refugee hopefuls.
It’s just before 9 a.m. and the sun has risen when he first catches sight of the yellow gate and snowdrift that mark the Canadian border here.
“Today a new country, Canada,” he beams, smiling broadly despite the varied pains of a nearly 12-hour walk through darkness and waist-high snow. “It’s a very good country.”
With reports from Eric Andrew-Gee and The Canadian PressReport Typo/Error