Seeking Asylum is a six-part Global News series focusing on asylum seekers’ journeys from entering the country to the challenges of starting a life in a new country.
WINNIPEG — It’s a dangerous trek asylum seekers are making by the hundreds as they flee a fear of deportation and look to call Canada home.
It’s a story that is very familiar to Yahya Samatar. The Somalian now lives and works in Winnipeg after illegally crossing into the country in August 2015.
“That decision was quite difficult,” Samatar said. “But it was the only option I had.”
Samatar was a human rights activist in his home country and helped young children get out of the militia. However, it was a tough job that put his life in danger daily.
“Every day (there were) killings and tortures. I grew up in that situation. I knew every day I was at risk,” he said. “It was increasing day by day. I lost my friends and several family members.”
He eventually made his way to the United States.
“When I came to the United States I was held in a prison for seven months and 10 days,” he said. “When I was released I had nothing. I had no right to work. I had no right to study. I had no rights for anything. I was waiting for deportation.”
So he set his sights on Canada. Samatar was one of the first widely publicized cases of an asylum seeker making the treacherous trek from the United States to Emerson, Man.
However, for Samatar it wasn’t a journey he did on foot. Samatar swam across the Red River after mistakenly believing the waterway was the Canada-U.S. border.
“It was a very stressful situation,” Samatar said.
WATCH: Winnipeg immigration lawyer breaks down process for asylum seekers once in Canada
That was in August 2015. It took Samatar 60 days to have his refugee claim approved and seven months to find full-time work. But Samatar considers himself lucky.
He now not only has a full-time job but he continues to volunteer in the community. He also helps house recently crossed asylum seekers at his own home. Right now, there are two refugees staying with him.
How Things Have Changed
For many of the 350 refugees seeking asylum in Manitoba since January 2017, it will likely take much longer than the average 60 days for their claim to be approved or denied.
The tribunal schedules time for two claims to be heard each day, one seating in the morning and one in the afternoon.
However, depending on how complicated cases are they could take much longer.
Immigration lawyers handling many of the cases in Winnipeg are overwhelmed.
Alastair Clarke has more than 80 open cases waiting to be heard by the tribunal and said many that have dates are being cancelled.
“Right now, I have hearings once or twice per week,” Clarke said. “These cases are moving through the system so slowly and so many of these hearings are being postponed.”
Last week, Clarke said five of the seven hearings set to go before the tribunal were postponed and no new dates were given.
“It’s overwhelming. There are very few of us to do this work and there are so many in need,” he said. “They get one shot. By law, each refugee claimant can only claim refugee status in Canada once per lifetime. So if their claim doesn’t go well, and it’s refused for some reason that could have been avoided, that’s it. There’s no redo.”
It may also take much longer for refugees to find full-time work once they receive a work permit. Just to get a permit can take between 90 and 120 days.
For many, they rely on social assistance and friends for money to help them survive until they can find a job.
“(One man) was in detention in the United States for 10 months and he befriended his prison English teacher,” Clarke said. “She’s been sending him money from Pennsylvania. She took a liking to him and she sends him cheques so that he can survive while he’s here.”
Samatar was able to find a job after just seven months. But he said right now it is much harder and there are few openings for people.
“As a refugee or a newcomer to get a job it’s very difficult. It’s a very stressful situation,” he said. ” I was quite fortunate. I made a lot of friends and I was volunteering at a lot of local organizations,” he said.
When Samatar lived in Somalia he said helped start a youth organization and gave back to the community by building schools. It was his wide-ranging skills from his previous job that helped him land work in Winnipeg as a consultant with an organization that helps charities.
According to lawyers, many of the refugees who come to Canada are highly skilled and have a lot to offer the workforce.
“I have some amazing clients. One refugee, he’s starting his own business now. He is very skilled in information technology,” Clarke said. “(Another) was a translator for the U.S. military in countries where he worked for many months. He is fluent in six languages.”