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Refugee Nearly Freezes To Death Fleeing To Canada Via Upstate New York Woods

Kathleen Masterson
This sign marks the Canadian side of the border at one rural area where many people are crossing illegally into Canada. Mamadou was in the woods somewhere within 20 miles of here.

Many recent immigrants living in the U.S. are scared that their claims for asylum won't have a fair hearing by the Trump administration. Hundreds of those people are fleeing to Canada — and for one man, the journey through the frigid, snowy woods nearly killed him.  

Mamadou, 45, fled his native country Cote D'Ivoire 10 years ago, escaping a brutal civil war. VPR is not using his full name for his protection.

He applied for asylum status in the United States, but was denied. Still, he says that U.S. authorities deemed it unsafe to return him to his country, so he was granted temporary permission to stay. Back home in Cote D’Ivoire, his father was killed by rebels and his home was burned to the ground.

For the last decade, Mamadou worked as a taxi driver in New York City. But at the end of February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents began showing up at his home to arrest him. He says they came and spoke with his friends three days in a row, in the evenings when he was out driving his cab.

“Then I see I have no choice, because I'm no longer safe in U.S. And they say they are going to deport me to my country, and when I go I gonna be killed,” Mamadou says, speaking from a detention center in Quebec.

That’s when Mamadou decided he had no choice but to flee the U.S. He made his way to the Canadian border north of Plattsburgh, New York.

When he presented himself to Canadian border authorities, they denied him a hearing to seek asylum — not on the merits of his claim, but for procedural reasons. The Safe Third Country agreement between the U.S. and Canada prohibits refugees to apply if they’re already in a safe country like the United States.

A risky choice

So the Canadian authorities turned Mamadou back to the United States. At around 6:30 that same evening, he decided to try to get to Canada anyway.

“I decide to walk in the forest to Canada, and it was so cold, and the snow was everywhere,” he says. “I don’t know which direction I was going — I just walking in the forest, and I fall in the river two times.”

Mamadou walked through the snowy woods in freezing temperatures for nine hours; he encountered two icy rivers he could find no other way around. He says the first was shallow, but the second river was deep and wide. After that crossing, he says his body became dangerously cold.

"Then I see I have no choice, because I'm no longer safe in U.S. And they say they are going to deport me my country, and when I go I gonna be killed." — Mamadou

It was so dark he couldn't even see the tree branches until he felt them whip his face. He says he saw a streetlight in the distance, and walked for nearly three hours before he reached a street.

“Then I saw a stop sign reading, ‘Arret.’ I said, 'Oh, 'arret,' that's a French word, maybe this is Canada,’" Mamadou says.

At that point, he says his whole body collapsed. H says he doesn't remember what happened next, until he woke up in a hospital bed.

“His clothes froze on him, basically, and they had to be cut off, when he was brought to hospital,” says Eric Taillefer, Mamadou's attorney. 

Mamadou says he learned later that a police officer found him lying unconscious in the street, and brought him to the hospital.

It took six days for him to regain the ability to speak and move his limbs, during which time he was handcuffed in his hospital bed.  

Trapped by a technicality

“Since he officially made a claim [for asylum] once, he cannot claim again,” says Taillefer. “We have a one-claim rule here in Canada, so once you've made it, you can’t do ever again — for life.”

Because Mamadou first approached the border in a legal fashion, presenting himself to Canadian authorities at the checkpoint, Mamadou inadvertently jeopardized his own chances of applying for asylum in Canada.

If he had simply walked through the woods first — crossing the border illegally between checkpoints — he could have then arrived in Canada, and made his first asylum claim then. That's what hundreds of refugees who are fleeing the U.S. are doing.

In February, there were 724 claims processed in Quebec alone.

But because Mamadou didn't know about the Safe Third Country Agreement, his claim was denied without ever getting a hearing in front of a judge.

Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR
Mamadou first tried to enter Canada at this border checkpoint, north of Plattsburgh, N.Y., but he was turned back to the U.S. after it was determined he didn't meet any of the exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Stories like Mamadou’s have some Canadian lawyers calling for the Safe Third Country Agreement to be revoked.

Taking it to court

Toronto attorney Jared Will recently filed a lawsuit in Canada, arguing that the agreement is illegal under Canadian law.

“The basic argument is that the U.S. doesn't respect the refugee convention or the convention against torture,” says Will, “and that it should never have been designated as a safe third country by Canada. But certainly now, the designation should not persist.”

Will says there are a number of problems in how the U.S. handles refugees that could deem it unsafe. For one, the U.S. bars people from making asylum claims if they've been in the country for more than one year.  

"The basic argument is that the U.S. doesn't respect the refugee convention or the convention against torture and that it should never have been designated as a safe third country by Canada. But certainly now, the designation should not persist." — Jared Will, Toronto attorney

If the U.S. isn't considered a safe country, then Will argues Canada shouldn't be able to deny asylum seekers the right to apply in Canada simply because they already happened to be in the States.

“The charter question, the constitutional question, is whether it's a breach of a refugee claimant’s right to life, liberty and security of the person in Canada to deny them the right to assert a refugee claim here, in circumstances where their ability to assert that claim in the United States is compromised,” Will says.

Will's clients are a Syrian woman and her three children; like Mamadou, they also presented themselves at the border checkpoint, not knowing about the agreement.  

The lawsuit is still in its infancy. Will says it could be several months before he hears back from the courts if he has an arguable case.

There is precedent for such a case: Back in 2007, the Canadian federal court ruled that the U.S. was not a safe third country for refugees. But that decision was reversed on an appeal on procedural grounds.

Mamadou's lawyer is also considering challenging the Safe Third Country Agreement, and he is in talks with attorney Jared Will about joining his lawsuit against the Canadian government.  

This story comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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