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Asylum seekers trek into Canada to escape Trump

15 February 20170 comments

In scenes that have not been seen in the US since the Civil War, refugees are trekking across country on foot to seek safety and sanctuary.

Since President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning the entry of nationals from several predominantly Muslim countries and since federal officials began arresting people without valid visas, hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers have risked freezing conditions to walk from the US into Canada.

Just this week, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) reported that it picked up 22 people near the Manitoba border town of Emerson, after they had walked for as long as four hours in sub-zero temperatures from North Dakota.

They were taken to offices of the Canadian Border Services Agency, where they all made refugee claims.

Refugees are also entering Quebec from New York state and British Columbia from Washington state.

On foot and through back roads and in taxis, hundreds of immigrants are making their way across the border between Canada and the US illegally, according to Canadian Border Services Agency statistics.

The numbers show an explosion in the amount of asylum claims being made at land border ports of entry across country with around 650 claims being made in January – more than three times the number made during the same period the year before and almost 10 times as many as were made in 2014 or 2015.

Crossing illegally is a strategic move on the part of those seeking asylum in Canada, Janet Dench, Executive Director for the Canadian Council of Refugees told the Canadian media.

“It’s a way around provisions of a treaty between the Canadian and American governments called the Safe Third Country Agreement,” she said.

Under the terms of the treaty, any refugees seeking asylum in either nation must claim protection in the country in which they first arrived.

In practice, asylum seekers who attempt to cross at a border entry point are told by Canadian officials to turn around and seek refuge in the United States.

Those who cross into Canada illegally, however, are detained by the RCMP and then begin the process of filing for refuge in Canada.

“That means Canada is saying to refugees, if you knock at our door coming from the United States, you must go back to the US and have your claim heard there,” Ms Dench said.

“Many refugees feel the US is not safe and many experts agree that for some refugees the US is not a safe country,” she said.

Ms Dench said some of that fear was because of new American administration led by President Donald Trump, whose campaign rhetoric on illegal immigrants and refugees was often incendiary.

In January, the new president signed an executive order indefinitely suspending a resettlement program for Syrian refugees and temporarily halted people from seven heavily Muslim countries from travelling to the United States.

That executive order was subsequently blocked by a Federal Court judge.

Ms Dench said worries about being sent back to the United States had led many people to cross “irregularly.”

“They’re not trying to avoid the officials, they’re trying to avoid the agreement,” she said.

“When they cross over irregularly, not a border point, they’re happy to turn themselves over to the RCMP as soon as they can.

“They want to do that. They’re just trying to get into Canada to strike a refugee claim and not get sent back to the United States,” Ms Dench said.

Locals living close to the US border says they’ve never seen anything like it. They describe scenes in the past few months that are reminiscent of a Walt Whitman poem with family after family seen emerging from the woods with their luggage.

“Some of them would ask us, ‘Are we in Canada?’ So the answer was ‘Yes, you’re in Canada’,” one local resident told the Canadian media.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist