Feature

Is Canada Really a Safe Haven?

An influx in claims of asylum from Donald Trump’s America forces a Manitoba border town to confront our nation’s hypocritical attitudes toward refugees

Photography by Benoit Aquin

Ahmed’s odyssey began with a kiss. It was just one kiss, on September 2014, with a man in a parking lot of a nightclub in Accra, Ghana. Ahmed noticed a group of men across the way pointing at them. Homosexuality is illegal in the West African country, and some citizens have formed vigilante squads. His friend bolted, and Ahmed jumped in his car. The men gave chase and followed Ahmed back to his house. As he tried to open his front gate, they attacked. They beat him, slashed and stabbed him with knives. When they smashed his head into a wall, he blacked out, and they left him for dead.

The next day, Ahmed decided to leave his country forever. He escaped to neighbouring Togo. But after hiding out for a few weeks, Ahmed realized that if he ever wanted to love again, he’d have to flee Africa entirely. From Togo, Ahmed flew across the Atlantic to Ecuador. He considered seeking asylum there, but couldn’t speak Spanish, and so wouldn’t be able to work. He resolved to push north and make a refugee claim in America. From Ecuador, he crossed into Colombia, where at the bus station in Cali, he was robbed of all of his belongings, including his passport. He had, though, kept a photocopy of his birth certificate and some cash in his sock, which the thieves overlooked. He entered Panama with other migrants: the plan was to cross the Panama Canal at night to avoid border patrols. They set out on two boats with only small outboard motors: there were seventeen migrants on Ahmed’s boat, and thirty-four in the one behind. The boat behind Ahmed’s capsized. As far as he knows, everyone drowned. “God loves me,” Ahmed thought to himself.

For three days and nights, they walked through the Panamanian jungle. One of his fellow migrants was bitten by a spider and became paralyzed. There was nothing they could do to help, so they left him there. At the edge of the jungle, they were picked up by the authorities. After being processed, they were bussed to Panama City and released. From there, the group went to Costa Rica. They paid coyotes $20 to take them on horseback through the mountains into Nicaragua, then took a bus to the capital, Managua. It was raining, so Ahmed slept at the station. After an eighteen-hour bus ride through Honduras to the Guatemalan border, he slept at another bus station, then got on another bus, this one headed to Tapachula, Mexico. When he got there, he was arrested and detained for five days. The authorities released him and told him he had thirty days to make his way into the United States.

For the first time in his journey, Ahmed felt relief. The worst of his eight-month odyssey was behind him, and a new life in America was within his grasp. He spent $120, nearly the last of his cash, on a three-day bus ride to the border town of Matamoros. From there, he walked half an hour through cartel country to the border station at Brownsville, Texas. After introducing himself to the guards, he said that he was seeking asylum. They searched him, put him in full-body shackles, and eventually transferred him to York County Prison in Pennsylvania, a penitentiary that also houses detained migrants. There he languished for months, preparing his claim.

Through the summer and fall of 2016, Ahmed watched images of Donald Trump’s campaign on the prison televisions. In order for his asylum claim to be processed, Ahmed would need to present the judge with documentation that proved Ahmed was who he said he was. But thanks to the robbery in Colombia, the only ID he had left was the photocopy of his birth certificate. Ahmed wasn’t allowed to call home from the prison to arrange for replacements, and he had no money left to hire a lawyer. When he requested legal aid, he was told staff were too busy to help. So when he appeared in immigration court, he had no official documentation and no representation. Although the judge acknowledged that Ahmed had a credible fear of persecution in his home country, he ordered that Ahmed be deported back to Ghana.

In the meantime, he was released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and given six months to gather the documentation necessary for his return to Ghana. A friend living in Minneapolis, whom Ahmed had met in prison, suggested that he do what thousands of others were now doing: flee from the US into Canada. Ahmed learned, however, that he couldn’t simply turn up at a Canadian border post and claim safe haven—if he did that, he would be turned away without a hearing and sent back to America for deportation. He needed to smuggle himself into the country.

Photograph by Benoit Aquin
Migrants follow railway tracks through heavy fog.

Ahmed made his way to Minneapolis, where he planned the final leg of his journey to the small border town of Emerson, Manitoba—the closest crossing point, according to the maps he consulted online. His friend gave him $300, which paid for a bus ticket to Grand Forks, North Dakota, about an hour and a half south of the border. After his bus arrived at the depot, he called to let his friend know he’d arrived and was about to set out.

That’s when another man, Adams, walked up to Ahmed and told him that he’d overheard him speaking on the phone in the same Ghanaian dialect that was his own mother tongue. Adams had fled Ghana after a dispute with his uncle over some family lands. The uncle had threatened to kill Adams, and used his influence with Ghanaian authorities to make him a wanted man. Adams had flown to Brazil and then, like Ahmed, made a trip up the continent. He was detained in an ICE prison for fifteen months before ultimately having his asylum claim denied.

Ahmed was amazed to hear someone else speaking the Hausa dialect, and told Adams that he was heading to the Canadian border. “What a coincidence,” Adams said. He was doing the same. As it came up on eleven o’clock at night, the weather started getting colder. Ahmed was wearing only a long-sleeved sweater—no jacket, no gloves, no hat. Adams was similarly dressed, but at least had a hat. They decided to hire one of the taxis queued at the depot. Adams turned to Ahmed and said, “If something happens, maybe one of us will survive.”

Between the two of them, they put together the $500 the driver wanted. Eventually, the driver let them out in a field and pointed them toward lights on the horizon. After they’d walked for almost eight hours through cornfields, Ahmed stopped in a frozen field of mud, lay down among the sheared stalks, and said he could go no further. He was cold and so tired he could barely talk; his mouth was impossibly dry, and they had no water. Adams would not let him quit. He forced him up, and they kept going, trudging toward the lights through the wind and the dark. And then around eight in the morning, they passed a little stone obelisk with “United States” written on one side and “Canada” written on the other, and they scaled an earthen levee. As the sun came up, they walked to the Maple Leaf Motel.

Emerson is named after a man who hated to travel. “Our first journeys,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “discover to us the indifference of places.” In the 1870s, two wanderlusting Americans, William N. Fairbanks and Thomas Carney, established a town on land once home to a Hudson’s Bay Company fort, bordered on the west by the Red River, and on the south by the forty-ninth parallel. When it came time to christen the place, Fairbanks suggested they honour his favourite writer and homebody.

For a while, their community flourished. Its economy was tied to traffic. A customs house had been built near the old fort and served the cross-border trade. Most important, Emerson was set to have its own railway, called the Emerson & North West Rail Road. As investment in the E & NWRR soared, Emerson’s prospects seemed boundless. Many thought it would outpace even Winnipeg as the railway hub of the Northwest. People from all over flowed into the town. In 1880 alone, Emerson’s five lumberyards sold 10 million feet of wood. In the summer, you could play cricket or baseball for the local teams; in the winter, there was hockey or curling. By the early 1880s, Emerson boasted a roller-skating rink, a brewery, a horse track, bowling lanes, brothels, two brickyards, six painting companies, seven contractors, eight bars, and eleven real estate agents. The well-heeled could enjoy the town’s luxury accommodations and haute cuisine. There was even an opera house, which hosted vaudeville acts and orchestras. Soon after, it was officially a city.

But in the fall of 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway announced that it would run a line south from Winnipeg, sixteen miles west of Emerson. The CPR then approached Ottawa and asked it to revoke the provincial charter for the Emerson railroad. The citizens of Emerson panicked and sent the mayor to meet with the prime minister and CPR’s general manager. Together, they struck a deal: the CPR would connect its line to the city, so long as Emerson built a suitable bridge across the Red River.

But the man who had named the city was furious with the compromise. Fairbanks was a major investor in the Emerson Railway, whose value had now been gutted by the CPR’s move. He refused to acknowledge the city’s expropriation of his property, and prevented bridge tradesmen from reaching the work site. When track construction finally reached the city limits, the bridge was still unfinished. Deciding that Emerson had reneged on its end of the bargain, the CPR dismantled the track and put it to use on the main line moving toward the Pacific—an act that led to the city’s isolation, decline, and fall.

Photograph by Benoit Aquin
Doug Johnston is a municipal councillor and volunteer firefighter in Emerson.

When I first arrived in Emerson, I thought I’d missed it. Early in the hour-long drive south from Winnipeg last March, I lost cell service, so Google Maps cut out, and at the last second, I executed a high-speed turn onto the last exit before the highway terminated at the US border station. I drove into a village hunkered down behind a permanent berm that surrounded it on all sides, protecting it from floods. One hundred and thirty years after its rise as a city, Emerson has returned to being a fort.

Much of Emerson’s economy still revolves around the border. Overwhelmingly white, many of its roughly 600 residents work for Canadian customs, for trucking brokerage firms, or at the duty-free shop. It takes about a minute to drive the length of the main street. There’s a drug store, a post office, and a community centre. A reinforced steel wall towers along the west side of the road where the Red River threatens. One of the last churches left in town was recently sold, its congregation long since gone. At noon every day, an air horn sounds. Why? Because it always has, I was told. Down the street, there’s a grocery store built of corrugated metal. You can even get wine there, though most of the bottles are covered in dust.

The night I arrived, I met Greg Janzen, the reeve—or head—of the town, at the Emerson Inn, the only bar left. Nursing a bottle of beer and a tumbler of cognac, he sat beneath a no-smoking sign, smoking. Janzen is grizzled and gregarious, a bon vivant who’s bored when he’s alone. His own grandfather, he said with a smile, was a refugee, having smuggled himself out of Czarist Russia between two bags of apples. Janzen was born into a farming family. At nineteen, he married his high-school sweetheart. He then went into the chemical and seed business, from which he’d retired not long ago. Janzen was handily re-elected three years ago, winning 70 percent of the vote. The previous reeve had served for twenty-five years. Being reeve here has traditionally been a “plough the roads and clean the ditches” job, I was told. But it was on Janzen’s watch that Trump was elected—a development that, he and other Emersonians believe, triggered a surge of refugee claimants that changed his duties dramatically.

It started in earnest on the morning of February 4, nine days after Trump’s first travel ban, when Brenda Piett, the town’s assistant emergency management office co-ordinator—a volunteer position—received a phone call from the nearby Canadian Border Services Agency post. It had been caught off-guard by nineteen Somali and Djiboutian migrants, who had crossed into the town before being rounded up by the RCMP. Could the town accommodate the group while they were being screened? the CBSA asked. The federal agency didn’t have the space to process so many refugee claimants at once.

Piett opened up the community complex, an unprepossessing multi-purpose building. After driving in her own car to the border station, she made a series of trips, helping to transport the migrants across town. At the community hall, Brenda and her sister worked without supervision; no RCMP or CBSA officers were present. The migrants had been through only a brief preliminary screening—what Janzen suspects amounted to little more than a pat-down—and would need to be driven back for additional processing. Piett and her sister laid folding banquet tables on the ground and covered them with blankets and pillows, fashioning makeshift beds. She made Nutella sandwiches and tea. The migrants, says Piett, were perfectly sweet, mostly just tired and grateful to be in Canada. They slept and then helped the sisters with the dishes and tidying up.

But many, including Janzen, were unhappy. Janzen believed it was unfair for the federal government to ask Emerson to draw on its own resources, and possibly put its people in harm’s way, for something over which they had no say. The reeve called an emergency meeting that included the town council, the RCMP, CBSA, and the Integrated Border Enforcement Team. He presented his case: it shouldn’t be up to Emerson alone to clean up the mess made by the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The STCA is a bilateral deal between the Canadian and American governments that was negotiated in response to the events of September 11, 2001. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, the US wanted to increase security along its northern border. Canada was happy to oblige, so long as the Americans agreed to a specific proposal: that migrants seeking refugee status be forced to make their claim in the first “safe country” they reached. The STCA, which came into effect in 2004, is ostensibly a burden-sharing program, but since the vast majority of asylum seekers arrive in America first, the STCA’s real purpose was to block migrants from reaching Canada. With a few exceptions—you’re a minor, have family living legally in Canada, or come from a country where there are no visa requirements for entering Canada—refugee claimants who present themselves at official ports of entry into Canada from the US (airports, seaports, border stations) must be sent back to America, even if they have a reasonable fear of facing persecution, violence, or death in their home countries. The STCA essentially uses the American refugee system as a filter for our own, sifting out claimants who might be welcomed in Canada—if only they could get here. Before the STCA came into effect, as many as 14,000 claims were being made at the US-Canada border each year. By 2011, that number had dropped to 2,500.

But Trump’s election has left many in the US feeling desperate. Some have already been denied asylum by the US. Others, having lived there for years, undocumented and with jobs and families, fear an increasingly bullish deportation strategy. Others still are Muslim Americans panicked by the rise in hate crimes. There is, however, a way around the STCA restriction: the inland asylum claim. Asylum seekers who walk across the border and present themselves to the authorities will nearly always have their claims heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, which—under the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention—is not permitted to discriminate against claimants on the basis of how they entered the country. In 2015, there were 550 inland asylum claims in Canada; in the year Donald Trump was elected, the number jumped to 1,335. It is on course to double again this year.

The number of inland claims in Ontario has stayed fairly stable at around 200, possibly because of the Great Lakes, which make it more difficult to cross the border on foot. In BC, however, claims climbed from 205 to 505; in Quebec, more claims were made in the first six months of this year than in all of 2016. Montreal, which has declared itself a sanctuary city, repurposed its Olympic Stadium in August so that it could serve as temporary housing for hundreds of the refugee claimants who’ve been crossing into Quebec daily by walking up Roxham Road near the town of Hemmingford. The RCMP intercepted nearly three thousand people crossing illegally in July of this year alone. Many of the claimants are Haitians who’ve be living in the US under so-called temporary protected status since the massive earthquake in 2010 and who are frightened by reports that the US administration is preparing to send them back to Haiti.

Photograph by Benoit Aquin
Koffi, a refugee from Ghana, crosses into Emerson.

As the STCA forces asylum seekers to avoid official entry points, they often have to make dangerous crossings. Nowhere has this been more evident than around Emerson. In 2015, there were forty-five inland claims in Manitoba. In 2016, there were 375.This year, there have already been 525. Geography is what makes crossing into Emerson appealing: The town lies right on the border with North Dakota and Minnesota. It’s not far from Minneapolis, which has a large Somali population, and it’s only an hour from Grand Forks. But geography is also what makes the journey there so perilous.

The forty-ninth parallel in Manitoba may be undefended, but it’s encircled by endless farm fields. In the winter—when temperatures have been known to drop as low as minus forty-six degrees—those fields are frozen, buried in snow, and raked by a frigid prairie wind. In the spring, the area is often flooded by the Red River. And in the summer, it is made unnavigable by corn that can grow four metres tall.

As a result, those who come frequently follow the railroad tracks leading north to Winnipeg. Some nights, two or three appear; other nights, groups of ten or twenty come across, disoriented, huddled, underdressed, and with few possessions. This past winter, two men needed to have their fingers amputated because of frostbite. One night in February, eighteen migrants, most of them from Somalia and one of them a toddler, tried to follow the tracks in a blizzard, but became disoriented by the whiteout conditions and nearly walked straight past the town. They took shelter in a dilapidated shed on an unused golf course, beyond which lay five kilometres of empty fields. They were rescued that same night by the town’s volunteer fire department. In May, a migrant hoping to be reunited with her daughter in Toronto died from exposure in a ditch beside the railroad, less than a kilometre from Emerson.

Despite the risks, they keep coming. Their escape is, in part, made possible by the Grand Forks taxi drivers who bring people close enough to the border to walk over. I asked a man who works for S&S Taxi, why he did it. “I’m tired of dealing with ’em down here,” he said. “I remember ten years ago in Grand Forks, I could count black people on both my hands. Now I ain’t got enough fingers and toes. The country’s starting to get darker.” If he had his way, he’d “bury ’em all in a swamp.” The final leg of this new Underground Railroad is run, it would seem, by racist cabbies.

After entering Emerson, Ahmed and Adams knocked on the office door of the Maple Leaf Motel, but the managers, Frank and Faye, weren’t yet awake. A man approached and told them they could sit in his car until the motel opened. He cranked up the heat—it was the first warmth they’d felt in Canada.

But the man eventually had to go, so Ahmed and Adams found themselves back out in the cold. They then spotted someone else parking his truck. By the time they reached him, he’d gone inside. Adams knocked on the door and called out, “Hello, please can you help us?” The driver emerged with a gun. They put their hands up, and Adams pleaded: “We are refugees. We are running from the United States.” The guy let them go. Half an hour later, Ahmed and Adams were picked up by the RCMP. The men were brought to the border station for processing before being allowed to make their claim in Winnipeg.

Photograph by Benoit Aquin
This shed on an unused golf course offered shelters to migrants during a blizzard.

Despite the attempts of RCMP officers to intercept them after they cross, migrants often make their way straight into town, where they wander around the rural streets for hours. One night when I was there, twenty-nine migrants crossed along the railroad tracks past a CTV news truck. Another day, while I was on my way up to Winnipeg, I sped past a group huddled together against the cold: they were a couple of kilometres up the Lord Selkirk Highway. At dawn one morning, as the birds roused and sang, I saw a lone migrant walk up the train tracks and then along a sleepy street. He wore a black hoodie. He had a knapsack on his back and another over his chest; he carried a garbage bag in one hand, and with the other, pulled a rolling piece of luggage. After stopping in front of a ramshackle house, he put his belongings down in the driveway, beside the owner’s beat-up GMC Sierra.

His name was Koffi. A twenty-three-year-old from Ghana, he had been living in Fort Collins, Colorado, on a visitor’s visa. He was afraid that he would be deported back to his country after his visa expired. He told me he was “running away from some things that could have ended my life.” Koffi said that the Americans had elected someone as their president who was too much like themselves, who didn’t welcome others. As we spoke, I eyed the windows of the house in front of us for movement. After we’d talked for about half an hour, a grey Dodge Caravan drove up, and an RCMP officer got out. She helped Koffi with his bags and didn’t even bother patting him down before opening the sliding door of her minivan for him. You could have mistaken her for a carpool driver for his morning hockey practice.

Koffi was lucky; he’d had no trouble coming through. But when people get lost, cross in dangerous weather, or have medical emergencies, the town’s fire department has to respond. “I sometimes think we’ve been too accommodating, too willing to go out and help,” says Janzen. “This is a federal issue.” But if it refuses to act, the town’s fire department might see its accreditation revoked. That puts Emerson in a bind that many here, especially Janzen, find untenable: rescue refugee claimants or risk losing your emergency services. In an effort to put pressure on the federal government to come up with a solution, Janzen started giving interview after interview to journalists from international and local media—by his estimate, close to 300 of them.

Janzen’s strategy ended up angering authorities: they’ve stopped communicating with him, and now refer his questions to media-relations representatives. “Communication has ceased as of now,” he told me. He couldn’t even get an estimate of the number of refugee claimants that had come through his town, an estimate Emerson needs to prepare its budget. “I was told it’s coming straight from Ottawa,” he said, referring to the reason for the silent treatment. Janzen has resigned himself to the fact that there’s nothing he, or the town, can do about the refugee claimants; they keep coming, and Emerson is expected to pay out when something goes wrong. (The government has since cut Emerson a $30,000 cheque.)

“It’s not that we don’t want refugees,” says Janzen. “It’s that we don’t want them coming across the fields, getting hurt.” But the fact that refugee claimants are seen as a liability for the town has made it difficult for many locals to feel sympathy for their plight. They are cast as troublemakers, trespassers, moochers, line cutters, criminals. Bad policy, in other words, has engendered bad feelings. Doug Johnston, a volunteer firefighter and municipal councillor, says it’s the illegality of their crossing that bothers him, though he told me: “We’re being used, but I can’t see a mother and child freezing to death.” George, an Egyptian immigrant, is one of the town’s two pharmacists. He’s against anyone superseding the legal application process by sneaking across the border.

For others in Emerson, feelings about the refugees have come to echo those of the man thought responsible for sending them here: Donald Trump. There’s talk of wanting to build a wall, of lining the border with pit bulls. Some of the town’s alt-right sentiments show up on “EmerFun,” a local Facebook page. As the floodwaters rose in the spring, one Emersonian wrote: “Let the bastards drown.” Another man commented: “U attempt to cross illegally, with fields and ditches full of water…if they that stupid Fuk em than they deserve to drown.” And another: “Let the fuckers drown while Justin Bieber Trudeau goes out to save them.” The surge in refugee claimants has drawn out extremist elements in other parts of the country. On Canada Day this year, far-right ultranationalist groups Storm Alliance and La Meute clashed with pro-refugee advocates on Roxham Road, near Hemmingford, where asylum seekers cross over into Quebec.

Asylum seekers are also testing Canada’s reputation as a country that, to quote from Justin Trudeau’s tweet after Trump’s first travel ban, welcomes those “fleeing persecution, terror & war.” A recent poll found that half of all Canadians think that migrants who enter illegally should be deported. A full quarter support a Trump-style travel ban. Four out of ten “feel” that the migrants crossing the border make the country “less safe.”

More recently, even Trudeau has hardened his line on illegal crossing, telling reporters: “Canada is an open and welcoming society because Canadians have confidence in our immigration system and have confidence that we are a country based on laws. You will not be at an advantage if you choose to enter Canada irregularly. You must follow the rules, and there are many.”

The STCA is one of those rules, and it embodies the contradictions in Trudeau’s statements. Peter Showler was the chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada when the STCA was being negotiated. “Canada,” he says, “has always been profoundly hypocritical” in its attitudes toward refugees. Twenty-one and a half million of them are currently drifting over the Earth. This year, the country will resettle 25,000. All of those refugees will be sponsored—either privately or by the government—pre-screened, and approved long before they set foot on our soil. This process is carefully planned and controlled. The asylum seekers, though, present themselves at our border in unpredictable numbers, and without warning. One of the reasons Canada fought for the STCA was that it gave it justification for turning these claimants away. “We’ve always portrayed ourselves as a nice guy,” Showler says, “but the STCA is something Canada wanted.”

Photograph by Benoit Aquin
The view from a room at the Maple Leaf Motel.

Canada, in fact, appears to be systematically closing its borders to asylum seekers. A 2013 report from the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Law Clinical Program details the extraordinary lengths Canadian authorities have gone to in order to prevent them from reaching us. They have, for example, increased the use of liaison officers; as of 2013, sixty-three of these operatives were stationed in forty-nine strategic locations around the planet. Their job is to intercept and prevent improperly documented travellers—which could include refugees—from going to Canada. Of course, many refugees come from countries that make it impossible to leave with anything but forged papers; refugees also often lose their identification on their journeys. The UN Convention on Refugees prohibits signatory states, such as Canada, from refusing refugees on the basis of false documentation. Nevertheless, from 2001 to 2012, liaison officers successfully blocked 73,000 migrants from entering the country.

Perhaps most disturbing are the strict sanctions the Canadian government can levy on the airlines, shipping companies, and railways that bring improperly documented migrants into the country. Carriers face penalties of up to $3,200 per migrant, and are responsible for covering any costs associated with removing them, including those for accommodation, food, transportation, and health care. The Dutch airline KLM was slapped with a bill of $114,715.68 for the costs associated with having to return a Somali man who’d travelled with a fake passport. In 1996, officers aboard the Maersk Dubai, a Taiwanese-registered ship bound for Halifax, discovered three Romanian stowaways. The officers, apparently in an effort to avoid Canadian fines, ordered that the men be thrown into the sea. When the officers were brought up on murder charges, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia determined that it had insufficient jurisdiction to hear the case, as the crimes had occurred in international waters.

Frank, one of the managers of the Maple Leaf Motel, knocked on my door one morning and told me a newly arrived family had checked in hours before, after having passed their CBSA screenings. Knowing I was a journalist, he thought I might want to talk to them, and asked me to return the daughter’s pink flower pendant, which had fallen off her necklace in the lobby. They were in a room a couple of doors down from mine.

A young black woman in a hijab answered. Her husband was reclining on the bed. Their daughter, a toddler, was sprawled next to him watching an episode of the children’s show Mister Maker in which squares and circles come to life and explain why they’re different from each other. I introduced myself to the mother, Nadirah. Born in California, she is a US citizen and had been living in Denver for the last few years while studying to be a nurse. Her husband, Naser, who is from Somalia and has a green card, makes a living driving trucks and taxis. Their daughter is American, too. These were Americans—Americans who saw themselves as refugees.

The family worried that Trump’s first travel ban put Naser at risk. They believed that if Naser had been outside the country when it was introduced, he wouldn’t have been let back in, and their family would have been separated. As far as they were concerned, their president was a threat to their lives. And since Trump’s election, they’d seen Denver change, and experienced what they called hate crimes. “I don’t feel really safe in the United States,” he said.

The central premise of STCA is that Canada and the United States are equally safe countries for refugees. Especially since Trump’s election, that premise is in tatters. Early this year, the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program released a report on the impact of Trump’s executive orders on asylum seekers fleeing persecution and violence. Its stark conclusion is that the US has ceased to be a “safe country of asylum.” The report notes that, as of 2014, three-quarters of all asylum seekers—including women and children, who are often separated from one another—were being detained in immigration prisons. These facilities, three-quarters of which are privately run, are rife with sexual violence and offer inadequate access to medical and legal services. According to a 2016 report by the ACLU, the US immigration system is now detaining more families than it has at any time since the mass internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Trump has moved to increase the number of detentions—even though some argue they violate the UN Refugee Convention.

Photograph by Benoit Aquin
A balaclava lies beside the railway tracks that lead to Emerson, Manitoba.

A coalition made up of Amnesty International, the Canadian Council of Refugees, and the Canadian Council of Churches has filed a lawsuit against the STCA. Many experts are calling for the government to scrap it and go back to allowing refugee claimants to present themselves at official border stations. Efrat Arbel, a UBC professor who specializes in international refugee law, explains that according to Article 10 of the STCA, either party can suspend the agreement for up to three months. Canada could do so, Arbel notes, and then take the time to consider whether the US can be considered a safe country for refugees. “The evidence,” she says, “clearly indicates it cannot.”

Having concluded that they were putting themselves in danger by remaining in America, Nadirah and her family packed their things and drove their car from Denver all the way to the ghost town of Noyes, Minnesota, located across from Emerson on the US side. They then walked north along the railroad tracks, knowing that Naser’s flight to Canada could cost him his green card. The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada would now have to decide whether Trump’s America was a safe place to return them to. A few days after the hearing, I called them, but their Canadian cellphones weren’t in service any more. I never heard from them again.

Earlier this year, Ahmed was granted refugee status. When he received the decision, he says, the most profound sense of relief he’d ever felt washed over him. He now lives with Adams and two other roommates in a little apartment in Winnipeg. While waiting for a work permit, he volunteers at Welcome Place, helping other refugee claimants who aren’t as educated or proficient in English as he is to fill out their claim forms.

Ahmed also volunteers at the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute, where he processes donations of clothing, bedding, and halal food. He recently organized a co-ed soccer tournament between teams made up of Syrian, Somali, and Ghanaian refugees and long-time locals. Ahmed’s mother disowned him when she found out that he was gay, and still won’t speak to him. Through his sister, she told him that unless he marries a woman, he can never call her his mother again. He’s taken to calling Laurel, his boss at CMWI, “Mom.”

Adams’s claim, however, was denied. The board ruled there’s a region in Ghana—Kumasi—that would be safe for him to return to. On the day his case was decided, though, a vigilante group stormed a courthouse in Kumasi and attacked a judge in her courtroom. He’s now filed an appeal, which will take ten months to process. If his appeal fails, he’ll be sent back to the country where his uncle waits for him.

Last March while I was in Emerson, I crossed the border to visit Noyes. I spent the afternoon with a photographer: we walked among the abandoned buildings and along the railroad tracks that lead to Emerson, cataloguing what the migrants had dropped—a bright orange balaclava, a red silk scarf, a baby’s blue-and-orange sippy cup. Then the stars came out. The car radio was playing “You’re on My Mind,” by the Animals, when the woman appeared.

We got out of the car, our hoods up against the cold. She shuffled along the unlit highway toward us, and as she bled out of the darkness, we could see the duffle bag slung across her back, her cream shawl, her mittens and her bare wrists. We could see that she was middle-aged and black and utterly alone. She was less than an hour from the border on foot, and the empty highway she was walking along ended at our car. To get to Emerson, all she had to do was turn left—the final turn of her odyssey.

Maybe it was our white SUV, which looked like a US border-patrol vehicle, or the fact that the light from a mechanic shop revealed us, the only souls for miles, to be white men with hoods pulled up. But when she should have turned left in front of us and headed north for the border, she turned right, on a path that would take her straight back down the continent. We began following her, and in the most harmless tone I could muster, I said, “Hi, there. You don’t have to be worried. We’re Canadian journalists. We’re just going to walk with you.”

She didn’t say a word, just kept walking south into the dark. We followed her, and I tried again: “Ma’am, you don’t have to be alarmed. I don’t want it to seem like we’re chasing you. We just want to walk with you to the border. We’re Canadians.”

Again she said nothing and kept walking. We knew she probably found us terrifying, so we stopped. As she continued on into the dark, I was overcome by an instinct to help her. “Ma’am, you’re going in the wrong direction!” I shouted.

All night and well into the morning, we waited for her to cross, but by sunrise, we still hadn’t seen her. We returned to Emerson as the sun rose, and as I lay in my bed at the motel, I felt guilty for having blown her off course so close to her goal. I couldn’t sleep, and heard the unmistakable honk of Canada Geese overhead—they were coming home, wing to wing.

Michael Lista (@michaellista) is a writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, and Toronto Life. His most recent book is Strike Anywhere: Essays, Reviews & Other Arsons.

Benoit Aquin won the inaugural Prix Pictet for his series on desertification in China.

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