Two men from Ghana are recovering in the burn ward of a Winnipeg hospital after getting lost near the Emerson border on Christmas Eve while fleeing the United States.
The men, aged 24 and 35, were found on Highway 75 just north of Letellier, Man., on the morning of Christmas Eve after walking in the cold for several hours.
A truck driver, who has not come forward publicly, stopped to help the men.
The driver called 911 and an ambulance took the men to the hospital in the town of Morris, Man., before rushing the pair to the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre.
It’s not clear how the men were able to make it over the border without being stopped, but both were disoriented and asking where immigration was when the truck driver stopped.
‘A very shocking sight’
The 24-year-old man spoke to CBC on the phone on Tuesday and said he is happy to be in Canada.
“They almost froze to death,” said Ghezae Hagos, a refugee claim counsellor at Welcome Place, a home for refugees in Winnipeg.
“It’s a very shocking sight really,” Hagos said, adding the 24-year-old man will likely lose his fingers and had blood seeping through bandages when he visited him Wednesday.
“He didn’t know the conditions of Canada.”
Environment Canada records show the temperature in the Emerson, Man., area on the morning of Dec. 24 was hovering around the –18 C mark before the windchill. CBC meteorologist John Sauder said skin can freeze within 30 minutes in that temperature.
Despite the two men’s ordeal, people that have visited them say they are in good spirits.
‘Very happy to be in Canada’
“I think he’s in better spirits than the first few times I saw him,” said Henry Kuzia, who has been visiting the 24-year-old man since Tuesday.
Kuzia said the man told him he and the 34-year-old left Minneapolis in Minnesota for Canada after their visas ran out.
He said they took a bus from Minneapolis to Grand Forks, N.D., and then a taxi to somewhere near the Emerson border.
There, the men walked through farmers’ fields filled with deep snow before making it to the side of Highway 75 where they begged for hours for help, he said.
Maggie Yeboah, a member of the Ghanaian community, visited the younger man Thursday. She said the 24-year-old spoke to his mom back in Ghana and is in good spirits.
“He’s very happy to be in Canada,” she said.
Border refugees on the rise
Newcomer advocates who spoke to CBC on Thursday say they’re seeing an increase in refugee claimants coming to the Manitoba border for help.
“Just in November alone we had 31 claimants,” said Rita Chahal, the executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council.
Chahal said there’s a network in Minneapolis of refugee claimants who are fleeing the United States.
They are primarily from Somalia and Ghana, she said.
“They obviously have fear [for] their lives and that’s why they’re asking us in Canada to help them with the protection.”
Chahal said Canada has a duty to protect refugee claimants who have arrived at or crossed the border.
She said they are given an opportunity to apply for protection under Canadian law once they’ve arrived.
Hearing to determine fate of the men
The Canada Border Services Agency said the fate of the two men is now in the hands of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
CBSA spokeswoman Jacqueline Callin said the RCMP intercepts people who enter Canada illegally, but those seeking refuge are brought to the Emerson border to be assessed by an officer.
Callin said if there are no admissibility concerns and a person’s claim for refuge is valid, he or she is released and a date is set for their refugee claim to be heard in Winnipeg.