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The Cost: Just How Much Are Refugees Risking to Illegally Cross Into Canada?

Sub-zero temperatures, rough terrain, and money: crossing the Canadian border isn’t as simple as stepping over a line.

Since the beginning of the year, reports of refugee claimants hopping the US-Canada border to seek asylum in Canada have multiplied rapidly. The first, most-notable instance of this happening was when two Ghanaian men—facing deportation from the US—trudged through waist-high snow to cross the Manitoba border. The two were eventually found by authorities in the town of Emerson, suffering from severe frostbite, now at risk of losing their hands and feet.

The reason for refugee claimants crossing the Canadian border illegally is due to the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA)—the joint border policy requires refugees to make their claim in the "first safe country" (in this case, the US). That prevents Canada-bound refugees from seeking asylum at the US-Canada border and Canadian airports. Claimants are thus forced to illegally enter Canada, get arrested by authorities, and claim refugee status once inside the country's borders.

While the RCMP could not provide exact numbers to VICE, estimations given by local authorities to other media outlets of how many refugees have fled the US to Canada since the start of President Trump's crackdown on immigration are in the high hundreds. In Emerson, that number reached 99 this weekend, after nearly two dozen asylum seekers were caught sneaking over the border.

In Ottawa, some Conservative MPs—such as Michelle Rempel—have balked at the idea of providing refuge to individuals entering Canada illegally. However, critics of that narrative say the cost of crossing is already incredibly high as it is.

"Canada appears to some people to be Disneyland for refugees," Raj Sharma, a Calgary immigration lawyer whose firm has been working overtime due to the number of new claimants, told VICE Tuesday.

"There is a very difficult process here, it's not like people are just being given a pass to do as they wish," Sharma told VICE, adding that many who have been arrested are still awaiting hearing, and that there's no guarantee that they'll win their case.

The three key areas in which authorities are targeting their efforts are in Abbotsford, British Columbia; Emerson, Manitoba; and Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Québec. Each area poses its own risks, and have seen varying levels of new claimants. The RCMP declined to comment when asked by VICE about how each of the different provinces were being monitored, but noted that they are advising anyone trying a DIY border crossing to turn back.

"Unfortunately, some individuals who are illegally entering Canada are not aware of the extreme weather conditions and geography they may encounter which can have dire effects to their well-being," the RCMP told VICE via a statement Tuesday.

"This issue is one of great concern to the officers responding to these types of incidents."

Out of all three regions, the RCMP says that Quebec has had the greatest influx of refugee claimants attempting to cross the border. The RCMP would not provide VICE with comment as to why they believe this is is, but Sharma says it's likely because of the lack of environmental impediments (such as snow and off-road terrain) that have already caused so much harm to those who have tried to cross in places like Emerson.

According to Sharma and the RCMP, many of the individuals arriving at these unintended border crossings are coming only partially by foot—for many refugees, much of the trip leading up to the border is by cab or truck. These rides can reportedly cost anywhere from $100 a head to $4,000, depending on the severity of the situation and desperation of those trying to cross.

Sharma also said that, based off anecdotes from claimants he's worked with, many are coming to more-rural areas like Manitoba and British Columbia because they offer two vital features: the possibility for work and community.

The point where country's meet, shot near Emerson, Manitoba. Photo by Caroline Wintoniw.

"Migrants and refugees are going where other migrants and refugees have gone," Sharma told VICE. "It's a little bit self-perpetuating, but people will follow in the footsteps of others who have paved the way."

Online, images of RCMP officers playfully hoisting up children who crossed the border last week drew both applause and criticism from social media—with some saying that the images were misrepresenting what was actually happening, which is that the refugees were being, as some authorities have put it, "gently arrested."

"It is unfortunate to say, but think about it this way: these folks are likely going to have hearings very quickly. Weeks, maybe months, but it will happen fast, and now, instead of the US deporting them, that burden may just fall on Canada to deport them," Sharma told VICE.

"Those Ghanaian men who lost their fingers to frostbite? They will have their hearing soon, and it may very well be that they have went from the frying pan to the fire."

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Lead image by Caroline Wintoniw.