October 23, 2014 12:52 pm
Updated: April 23, 2015 2:31 pm

Refugees risking their lives to find sanctuary in Canada


WATCH ABOVE: 16×9’s “Sanctuary”

Migrants risking their lives; human smugglers; border patrols… these are things we usually associate with Mexico – U.S. border.

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But the Canada-U.S. border is becoming increasingly lawless, and it’s starting to mirror its southern neighbour. Law enforcement officials and experts who work with refugees near the border tell 16×9 that migrants are getting injured and sometimes even dying jumping trains, crossing rivers, and trekking through the woods in winter – trying to get into Canada.

“We got a call from U.S. border patrol telling us some people saw some tracks in the snow and that people just had crossed the border,” recalls Bryan Byrne, an RCMP Staff Sergeant who describes an incident that happened a few years ago.

They responded to the call and “found a gentleman in the snow that was suffering from hypothermia… he was in very bad shape. We rushed him to the hospital and the doctor had to amputate him. He lost a foot and one hand.”

Sister Judy Carroll has heard of similar things. She runs two refugee intake centres along the border and has helped undocumented people who took unbelievable risks trying to cross the river and the rail bridge that separates Fort Erie, Ontario and Buffalo, New York.

“There’s one person that was caught by the train as he was walking across. The train came and he wasn’t prepared, he didn’t know what to do. Because of the injuries from the train he had both his legs amputated,” Sister Judy says about a case she knows of.

“When people are desperate they will find a way…they will do anything to come into the country any way possible.”

“I was scared, I was desperate,” says Rebecca, who did not want to be identified for the piece. She was willing to do almost anything when she made her escape from El Salvador. Rebecca is gay. And in El Salvador, that meant she was in danger. Rebecca and her girlfriend moved in together. But when her girlfriend’s estranged husband – a military man – found out, Rebecca says he sent two men who attacked her on the street.

“I got my car destroyed…[then] two guys…beat me really bad. Tried to rape me,” Rebecca who does not want to be identified, says. She then fled the country.

Rebecca made it to the U.S., but she had heard that the States has a track record of deporting people like her. So she decided it was risky to stay and headed to the only safe country she knew, Canada.

But the doors to this country weren’t as open as they once were.

“You were supposed to have family,” Rebecca says “that is your family…blood-related.” Without family here Rebecca – who would have been able to legally claim refugee status at the border before – now had to break the law to get in. But in a strange twist, she didn’t need a relative if she could get to a refugee claims centre in a city.

READ MORE: What is ‘safe third country’ legislation?

In other words, most people could only ask Canada for refugee status if they had a relative living in the country, but didn’t need a relative if they claimed ‘inland’, at a Citizenship and Immigration Centre that was not along the border.

WATCH BELOW: “Rebecca” talks about using Google Earth to choose the location where she crossed from the US into Canada.

That law called the Safe Third Country Agreement was passed after 9/11 and came into effect in late 2004.

It was supposed to tighten the border, protect Canada from terrorists and cut down on the number of refugee claims. But many immigration experts and law enforcement officers say the new law merely increased the number of people breaking the law to get into Canada.

“Immigration wasn’t a problem at all, we seldom would have a case,” recalls Staff Sergeant Byrne, who has spent decades along the border. Things changed on “day one” in 2005. Byrne says they’ve “seen an increase” in the number of undocumented people coming from the U.S. into Canada since that time.

Rebecca was one of those undocumented people. Because she didn’t have relatives in Canada and couldn’t apply for refugee status at the border it meant sneaking in to try and get to a city with a refugee claims centre. At midnight she found a small isolated border post mostly empty and just kept going, walking dozens of kilometres along the road to Montreal.

“It was a lot of adrenaline… you feel nervous, you don’t think,” Rebecca says. “I just didn’t stop, I was bleeding pretty bad I could see the blood on top of my running shoes …but I didn’t realize until I came to a stop, a full stop, 7 hours later…I was scared.”

Stories like Rebecca’s are increasingly common. “More migrants are attempting to find a way around the provisions for the Safe Third Country Agreement, arriving in Canada by air, ferry or illegally between the ports of entry in order to enter refugee claims in Canada inland,” the RCMP reported in 2007.

Law enforcement was also seeing more cases of people being secretly snuck in. “Canada bound human smuggling activity [between ports of entry] has surged in 2011,” a 2012 American and Canadian border police study obtained through the Access to Information Act reported. It said that there was a 58 per cent increase over the previous two years.

Things got so bad along the border that in 2012, even Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, admitted the law was not working.

“So the agreement’s become a bit of a paper tiger unfortunately,” Kenney told Global News’ The West Block host Tom Clark, “and that’s why we have to find other ways to deter people who are not bonafide refugees but are trying to abuse our generosity from doing so.”

The government may once have admitted the Safe Third country Agreement is a failure, but Citizenship and Immigration Canada still maintains it’s working, telling 16×9 that the law is “enhancing the orderly handling of refugee claims… reducing abuse, and providing protection to those in need.”

The federal government has no plans to change things.

For Rebecca, the Safe Third Country Agreement was anything but orderly. She eventually found her way to a refugee shelter in Toronto and now works as an administrator at a college and has become a Canadian citizen.

“If you’re opening your doors to refugees, what’s the difference to do that at the border or inside the country,” Rebecca says. “I wasn’t trying to do something illegal; I was trying to save my life. And if I have to cross the border and that’s gonna put my life at risk, I will.”

“Sanctuary” airs this Saturday on 16×9.

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