Manitoba RCMP has intercepted 143 people illegally crossing the border since the beginning of the year. The asylum seekers have trekked across the border through the harshest of winter conditions — some losing fingers in the process.
As spring approaches, Manitoba officials are also planning for flooding — a major annual concern in the Prairie province — which will complicate the search and rescue process.
The Red River flows through the area where most asylum seekers attempt to cross into Manitoba on foot. While the fast-moving Red River often swells following the thaw, overland flooding has a tendency to turn fields into lakes or mud pits. Local highways are sometimes forced to close due to high water levels, and homes are at risk of flooding.
Local officials now plan to keep boats on standby.
“It’s something that we need to plan for: When we get a medical call or a search and rescue call, our fire department goes out on these calls. Right now we’re going to have to make sure we have water rescue stuff,” said the head of the local municipality, Greg Janzen.
“People are coming in the middle of the night and don’t know the lay of the land.”
The province’s most recent flood watch said there is a risk of moderate to major flooding this year.
“It can get messy and the water’s always moving,” said Janzen, who is the reeve for the Rural Municipality of Emerson-Franklin. “So there’s always a risk factor there. Somebody falls into the current, and the water is cold when it’s flooding.”
Previously, the border community used to handle an average of about 35 asylum seekers a month, Janzen said. Last week they received more asylum seekers than that in just five days. He believes that number will increase along with the temperature.
“The weather is not that nice here yet so as it warms up, who knows,” said Janzen. “I hope I’m worrying about it for nothing.”
The need is “not likely to go away in short order,” Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said last week as he announced emergency support for refugees crossing the border into the province.
“We need to recognize this is a national issue, and so it requires a national approach,” said Pallister.
The problem isn’t isolated to Manitoba. Quebec has seen a wave of asylum seekers; the Canada Border Services Agency said 452 people made refugee claims at Quebec land border crossings in January alone.
That’s a sharp increase from the 487 people who were apprehended attempting to enter Canada illegally at remote locales in all of 2011. In 2010 there were 308 claims.
A Syrian family Global News spoke with as they got dropped off by a taxi at the Quebec border said they had done their research and found that their chosen crossing was the safest.
In B.C., one resident told Global News she sees people crossing the border illegally every day.
WATCH: Asylum seekers break law, risk crossing into Canada
Human migration does tend to increase when the weather warms, said Julie Chamagne, executive director Halifax Refugee Clinic.
“We have from time to time container shipment crossings, and it’s very rare to get them in the winter,” said Chamagne.
“There is a bit of a season, it’s a more dangerous trip to do in the winter. And walking across the border … I think it will only increase.”
In Europe, officials have already been preparing for an influx of migrants as spring approaches.
The warmer weather in Canada comes as the political climate south of the border becomes increasingly hostile.
“Things don’t seem like they’re getting any better in the states, and we in Canada haven’t taken steps to suspend or withdraw from the Safe Third-Country Agreement, so I can’t say that it would stop anytime soon,” said Chamagne.
The Safe Third-Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. requires people to apply for asylum in the first country they arrive – not both.
“That is the reason people are crossing on foot,” said Chamagne. “Because if they were to go to the port of entry to the border to make a refugee claim, they would not be able to under the terms of the Safe Third-Country Agreement.”
WATCH: Ottawa refuses to close loophole asylum seekers take advantage of
Janzen said his small Manitoba community has received a swell of support — but something has to give.
“It is wearing on everyone,” he said. “But as the trend’s going, as it warms up, we are going to see more people coming. Donald Trump is not backing down on his immigration ban so that is scaring a lot of people. ”
Last week Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told Global News the situation is being watched very carefully.
Officials at Public Safety, the Canada Border Services Agency and RCMP are in the midst of analyzing the recent influx of foreigners crossing into Canada at unguarded points of the border with the United States, Goodale said on The West Block.
“Clearly here, protecting Canadians is the No. 1 obligation,” Goodale said.
WATCH: Ralph Goodale says Trump’s travel ban was ‘a trigger point’ for some asylum seekers to Canada
Janzen hopes changes are being discussed that will offer relief for his community and the asylum seekers risking their lives to get there.
“Everyone says, ‘just close the loophole. Let them walk up to the border and claim refugee status.’
“Then we won’t have to worry about these people coming across our backyards or worrying if they’re going to freeze to death out in the middle of the fields.”
With files from Amy Minsky.