EMERSON, Man. â€” Nineteen asylum-seekers braved a fierce blizzard and whiteout conditions on the open prairie to cross into Canada near the Manitoba border community of Emerson, the area's reeve said Wednesday.
"It was not pretty out here. Some heavy snow squalls, zero visibility, and these people are walking north straight into the wind," Greg Janzen said.
"I think they walked almost right through Emerson without knowing they were here."
Two people were found Tuesday night, Janzen said, and the other 17 were discovered huddled together shortly after sunrise in a carport at an old golf course.
Winds were gusting up to 80 kilometres an hour overnight, which created a wind chill of -28 C. Visibility was so poor, highways in the area were closed until early Wednesday morning.
An ambulance managed to get through, Janzen said, and one person who had an injured arm was tended to. Like others who have walked across the border this year, the refugee claimants were taken by RCMP for processing by border agents.
More than 200 people have walked across open fields and through ditches near Emerson since Jan. 1 â€” part of a growing number that have also crossed the border near Hemmingford. Que., and other communities.
Many of those making the journey are originally from African nations such as Somalia and Ghana and fear deportation from the United States under toughened immigration laws.
They cross fields and ditches instead of at official border posts because of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country agreement. Under the agreement, people who have made refugee claims first in the U.S. are turned back at official Canadian entry points, but it does not apply to people who get onto Canadian soil first.
They are allowed to follow normal refugee-claim procedures and are usually released and cared for by a non-profit agency until their case is heard.
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he intends to raise the issue of asylum-seekers when he meets Friday with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
"The first thing we need to do is to make sure that we have a common understanding across the border ... about who these people are exactly and how they are making this migration and why," Goodale said in Ottawa.
"You know that is very, very risky, so one question that I would have is: who organized this movement and did they actually contemplate letting people out on a roadside in the middle of a prairie blizzard? That's risky and we'll want to explore the factors that led to that kind of potentially dangerous behaviour."
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has called on the federal government to do more about border-crossers, but did not reveal his specific demands Wednesday.
"We need a partnership. We're asking the federal government to do that. I'll have more to say on this issue tomorrow."
Many of the refugee claimants at Emerson have passed through Minneapolis, home of a large Somali community.
Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, has been warning people against trekking into Canada on foot. The latest bout of bad weather reinforces that message, he said, and some people now are thinking twice about making the journey.
"But others, because they don't have enough resources and they believe that's the only chance that they have, they'll take whatever risk that they can encounter. And that's something which is dangerous."
Noor said he is not expecting numbers to swell in the spring when the weather warms up. He suggested anyone who has considered trekking to Canada is likely to have already taken the opportunity to do so.
â€” By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg. With files from Lauren Krugel in Calgary
The Canadian Press