After he was denied asylum in the U.S., Seidu Mohammed’s fear of being deported to his native Ghana, where he believes he’d be killed or jailed, became so great that he set out in brutal winter conditions to cross illegally into Canada.
Mohammed and his friend lost all their fingers to frostbite after a 10-hour trek across fields of waist-high snow in sub-zero temperatures. Despite their injuries, the two men say they now feel safe. They’re part of a small but growing number of immigrants risking the northern border crossing.
“God blessed Canada with good people,” said Mohammed, 24. “I see the difference between Canada and the United States.”
In Manitoba, which borders Minnesota and North Dakota, groups that specialize in helping refugees say the pace of arrivals has quickened since Donald Trump became president and banned travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. Refugees who spoke with The Associated Press cited Trump’s order and anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric as the main reasons for going north.
Rita Chahal, executive director of Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, said her group normally sees 50 to 60 refugees from the U.S. each year. But The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that more than 40 have been picked up at the border near Emerson, Manitoba, in just the last two weekends.
Chahal said most are natives of Somalia, which was in Trump’s travel ban, but also from Ghana, Djibouti, Nigeria and Burundi. They are making the trip at a dangerous time.
“This is one of the coldest seasons in the coldest parts of our country,” said Ghezae Hagos, a counselor at Welcome Place in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who deals with refugees upon arrival. He said that on Feb. 4, five Somalis said they walked for five hours in the fields in -30 Celsius (-22 F) weather.
The increase at the Manitoba crossing is likely related to Minnesota’s status as the leading U.S. landing spot for Somali immigrants.
Marc Prokosch, an immigration attorney in Minneapolis, said it’s been growing more difficult for Somalis to get asylum in recent years, mostly because they lack documents to prove their identity.
There is also fear of deportation. U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement said 90 Somalis were deported from across the U.S. on Jan. 25.
Bashir Yussuf, a Somali refugee who spent three years in San Diego and the last two months in Minneapolis, crossed the border Feb. 5 with two others. Yussuf, 28, was ordered deported in 2015. He had remained in the U.S. under monitoring, hoping to get a favorable ruling to stay.
“But when Trump took over, eventually my hope died,” he said.
He called the trip “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” describing a three-hour journey over ice and snow.
“I even jumped two rivers over snow. You go down deep,” he said. “My life was in danger in many ways.”
While the number of Illegal crossings to Canada is dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands from Mexico on the southern border, the numbers are increasing.
In Quebec, the number has tripled in one year to 1,280 in the current fiscal year, which runs through March. Illegal crossings to British Columbia doubled to 652 last year. In Manitoba, the RCMP intercepted 68 people three years ago but 430 this fiscal year.
Near Emerson – about 80 miles north of Grand Forks, North Dakota, on Interstate 29 – officials on the U.S. side have done enough rescues in the past month that Aaron Heitke sees it as a humanitarian issue.
Heitke, the Border Patrol’s Grand Forks sector commander, said he’s contacted consulates for some African countries asking them to spread information about the hazards of a Minnesota winter.
“Family groups with small children that, if someone hadn’t gone out and picked them up, they’d have frozen to death,” Heitke said.
Those fleeing the U.S. avoid border posts because of an agreement – called Safe Third Country – that requires migrants to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in. That means migrants arriving at a Canadian border post are rejected and told to apply in the U.S.
An opposition party lawmaker grilled Canada’s immigration minister in Parliament on Thursday, saying the agreement discourages refugees from crossing at an official border checkpoint. New Democrat lawmaker Jenny Kwan also asked the minister whether he still believes the U.S. is offering a high degree of protection for asylum seekers.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, himself once a refugee from Somalia, stressed that Canada is welcoming to refugees. Canada has taken in almost 40,000 Syrian refugees, triple the U.S. intake of Syrians in 2016.
But Hussen said the agreement with the U.S. will remain because it “provides an orderly system of managing asylum claims.”
Mohammed, who feared for his safety in Ghana because he’s bisexual, met Razak Iyal, also a Ghana national, at a bus terminal in Minneapolis. Both men had been denied asylum. Worried about deportation, they decided to travel together and took a bus to Grand Forks, North Dakota.
They then each paid a taxi driver $200 on Christmas Eve to get them close to the border. They crossed on foot, fearing death in the brutal cold until a truck driver saved them.
“We were standing in front of the highway looking for help for almost seven hours. Nobody was willing to help, no traffic stopped. We gave up. That was our end of our life,” Iyal said.
Mohammed and Iyal are hoping for prosthetic fingers, and Iyal said he wants to bring his wife to Canada.
“We feel like we are home,” Iyal said. “We feel we are a part of Canada. … They were talking to us with respect.”