Why refugees are choosing to cross over in Manitoba instead of Saskatchewan?

Asylum seekers from Somalia cross into Canada illegally from the United States by walking down a train track into the town of Emerson, Man., early Sunday morning, Feb. 26, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

On Thursday, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister once again called on the federal government for help to address the wave of asylum seekers who continue to enter through Manitoba.

The province, which neighbours Saskatchewan, has seen a rising number of refugee claimants entering Manitoba through unofficial land crossings. More than 200 asylum seekers have illegally crossed into Canada near Emerson, Man.

On Friday, Greg Janzen, Reeve of Emerson-Franklin, said a young family made the trek across the US-Canada border into Emerson.

READ MORE: Firefighters rescue 17 asylum seekers, including a baby, from shed in Emerson, Man.

He said the young family had two children with them, one roughly 10 months old and the other, two years old.

Pallister has asked the Trudeau government to help fund health care coverage, temporary housing, employment income assistance, direct employment and labour market supports.

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While Manitoba looks to deal with the influx of asylum seekers, Saskatchewan hasn’t seen the same numbers.


Lorne Waldman, a Toronto lawyer and past-president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said the difference is down to geography.

According to Waldman, there is a large refugee community in Minneapolis, including a significant Somalian refugee community throughout Minnesota. In Montana and North Dakota, which are under Saskatchewan, Waldman said there are no big cities with a large refugee community.

Asylum seekers from the United States may travel from Minneapolis through Interstate 29 to Emerson. Global News

When looking at the route, Waldman said refugees may choose to take the Interstate-29 highway that goes through Fargo and Grand Forks until they reach the border at Emerson.

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Michelle Stewart, an associate professor with the department of justice studies at the University of Regina who has done some immigration work throughout the city, said she also understands that there is a well-established network from Minneapolis to Winnipeg.

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“So they’re leaving a major urban hub in the U.S. and heading into another major urban hub in Canada,” Stewart said.

“We know that people are passing in a lot of locations. We just have a lot of focus on Emerson right now and a lot of focus on Manitoba because the nature of the crossings is so alarming, that people are crossing when it’s -20 C and they’re having extreme frostbite.”

Support for Refugees in Manitoba and Saskatchewan

Stewart said she also understands that there are good resources in place for asylum seekers in Manitoba and throughout Canada.

“Unlike in the U.S., where you are going to be put in detention, they can have free mobility while they’re having that refugee and asylum claim looked into and then there is some access to legal aid and support,” Stewart said.

According to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), throughout the prairie region (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba), there were 714 asylum claims processed by the CBSA in 2016 compared to 377 in 2015. There were 344 claims in 2015 that started at the border and 676 in 2016

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Public Safety Canada has confirmed there were 29 asylum claims received by CBSA in Saskatchewan last year. In 2015, there were 3 asylum claims and in 2014, there were 4.

Saskatchewan RCMP have not intercepted any migrant people who have attempted to cross the border illegally in 2017.

However, five irregular border crossing attempts from the United States into Saskatchewan were reported. All five were members of the same family and were intercepted by United States Border Patrol personnel on the U.S. side of the border.

The five people never crossed the border and remained in the United States.

The statistics reflect asylum claims for all modes, including inland offices. It includes asylum claims intercepted by the RCMP and brought to CBSA designated land office or inland office. It does not include asylum claims made at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada offices.

Manitoba gets federal funding for immigration and refugee legal aid services. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador also provide legal aid to refugees.

In a statement, the Saskatchewan government confirmed the Legal Aid program does not provide a special service to immigrants and refugees but they do have access to Legal Aid’s regular range of services.

“Some legal aid plans provide representation services for refugees, which are funded by the federal government through agreements with those provinces,” the statement said.

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Legal Aid services in Saskatchewan are confined to criminal and family law.

To deal with the increasing number of refugees, Manitoba has announced transitional funding supports, including 14 units of emergency housing, $70,000 in funding for a refugee response co-ordinator and $110,000 in funding for the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council (Welcome Place) to support services like paralegal services and safe transportation.

Solutions Moving Forward

Waldman said it’s possible as the weather gets better over the summer, that there will be more refugees going over unofficial border crossings. There might be more asylum claims if concerns in the U.S. increases for refugees under the Trump administration.

“I think that it’s very likely that you’re going to start seeing more and more people taking advantage of the border crossings in different places,” Waldman said.

The Safe Third Country Agreement, which was enacted in 2004, is a ruling that means asylum seekers have to make their refugee claims in the first country, either Canada or the United States, that they arrive in.

However if asylum seekers enter Canada illegally, the agreement doesn’t apply.

Waldman said the Canadian government could possibly send resources down to the United States to explain that they may not be better off in Canada, for example, if they have already been in the United States for a few years.

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“They may be placing themselves in a situation where they’re going to be rejected in Canada and they’re going to be sent back to the country they left,” Waldman said.

Stewart said it would be useful to revisit the Safe Third Country agreement and take it down, a position she has heard from many advocates.

“We see right now particular moments with the Trump administration that raises concern, but the issues associated with this particular agreement have been long problematic and effectively, it puts people in a precarious situation that they feel like they do need to cross in ways that are non-traditional, which are dangerous, and effectively closing doors to more asylum seekers than opening in some regards,” Stewart said.

There also may be an opportunity for more discussion around sanctuary cities, Stewart said. In Canada, Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton, Vancouver and London are designated in sanctuary cities.

Saskatoon and Regina have expressed interest in adopting similar motions.


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