Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
– Emma Lazarus
I’m writing this post in Toronto, Canada, in a snowstorm. It’s warmed up enough to snow today, which is a relief. The past week has been cold and clear, sun in the day and stars at night. Starry nights in the winter are the coldest, when it feels like the upper atmosphere is screaming straight down onto the surface of Earth and the stars glint like ice illuminated. It’s on these recent nights that smugglers have slid open truck doors, and pushed people into the dark.
There has been a spate of incidents of refugees from Africa-via-United-States conspicuously arriving in or around Winnipeg and Toronto, which is getting attention for two primary reasons. The first is their horrendous injuries due to frostbite. The second is, well, this just doesn’t usually happen.
Refugees don’t need to be smuggled into Canada – they can arrive at any border and they won’t be turned away. These refugees, too, are coming from the United States, so they could have just stopped at the normal border crossings and entered the country. Why are people paying to be smuggled into Canada from the US? Why are they risking and suffering so many weather-related injuries?
The first case I heard of this kind sounded a bit like a one-off. Two young men from Ghana were found at the side of a highway by a truck driver, after walking for seven hours into southern Manitoba, and asked for immigration services when the driver pulled over to assist them. The two were so severely frostbitten and disoriented that the truck driver called emergency services, and they were taken to the burns unit of Winnipeg Health Science Centre for treatment. The younger of the two men will likely have to have his fingers amputated because of the severity of his frostbite.
However, it has become clear that this case wasn’t a one-off, and most people aren’t walking across the border. There have been nine subsequent cases of people, many of them women and children, getting severe frostbite after being left in the outskirts of Toronto by people who have smuggled them into Canada. Dr. Paul Caulford, a refugee advocate and physician at the Canadian Centre for Refugee & Immigrant HealthCare, in Scarborough, Ontario, has reported that half of the people they have treated in these cases are children, and many of them have severe injury to their hands and feet. One mother may lose her entire hand, because “she had huddled her 18-month-old child under the only coat she had and had kept that hand over that child’s face for three hours” in temperatures of -15°C / 5°F (CBC 2017). People are being left on roadways, in parks, and outside (closed) churches, in freezing weather, without proper clothing or any sense of where to go for shelter and help.
That people are being smuggled into Canada in trucks and abandoned in random places around Toronto (and maybe other places, too) – which would be extremely stressful, disorienting, and awful – is bad; that they feel like they have to flee the United States to Canada in this manner is somehow even worse. These people have been told that “it’s not a good environment for them to be in the United States now as a refugee, as somebody coming in to make a claim. They’ve been told that they are going to have to have their journey [which often began in sub-Saharan Africa] extended” (CBC 2017).
The Guardian reported in November 2016 that refugees were feeling nervous about their safety and their ability to remain in the United States with the impending change of administration. Likely, no one in particular has needed to tell refugees that they are in uncertain territory with The Donald now in charge; there have been plenty of hints dropped and threats tweeted to imply that the new administration will be less friendly toward refugees than previous one. More hate crimes have already been perpetrated, and popular opinion is unfavourable toward ‘outsiders.’ Though most of The Donald’s comments have been made about Syrian refugees and Muslim people, the entire refugee community feels vulnerable to deportation and violence, according to the Guardian’s sources.
It’s an outrage. An outrage among outrages. Refugees are, by definition, a persecuted group. They have faced serious threats to their safety and lives because of their religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, or because of violence and war, among other things, in their home countries. The refugee women smuggled into Canada have made long, costly, and arduous journeys to reach the United States with their children, to find safety. To then be made to feel vulnerable again because of nationalist and xenophobic administrative policies, to have to trust strange smugglers, to take another journey in the back of a truck, to have one’s trust betrayed and to be left on the side of a dark winter road, under the glinting stars in air as cold as sharp knives, to lose one’s fingers, hands, or toes to frostbite!
The mind boggles. The persecution of refugees in the US must be addressed. People who don’t agree with the administration and its fans must be active in their communities to stop the fear and to support refugees, and other people who are again or newly vulnerable. The women and children who were smuggled into Canada, and the two men who walked, ought to have their refugee claims accepted. Since the United States is already on the Designated Country of Origin list in Canada, ironically because of its status as a safe and rights-upholding nation, refugees who are considered to be fleeing from the US can expect to have their claims processed faster. This could be a boon, given the violence and hatred now being permitted and promoted. These folks could also be considered for refugee status based on their original country of departure in Africa, which would take longer to process, but has a better chance of being successful.
Obama has accepted tens of thousands of refugees in his tenure as president. Should Trump actually follow through on some of his campaign statements to limit or completely stop the acceptance of certain refugees, those refused by the US will need someplace to turn. The world should brace itself for the slamming shut of the golden door.
Severe winter weather isn’t just impacting these refugees to Canada. Europe’s large refugee centres in Greece and Serbia are facing a crisis as temperatures have plunged. People are living in make-shift shelters and summer tents, with improper clothing and footwear, and the persistent lack of food, medicine, toilets, and hot water. At least one person has died from exposure in the refugee camp in Moria, Greece. The slamming closed of Europe’s doors has stranded many refugees in the Balkans indefinitely. There isn’t a lot of information about what is happening to the refugees, but it seems safe to assume that any aid will be patchy, medical care woefully inadequate, and conditions altogether terrible. Europe needs to pull its head out of the snowbank; pretending these refugees don’t exist will not make them go away.
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] (2017). Abandoned by smugglers on Toronto’s streets, refugees treated for severe frostbite. In As It Happens (Monday, 09 January). http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-monday-edition-1.3927604/abandoned-by-smugglers-on-toronto-s-streets-refugees-treated-for-severe-frostbite-1.3927612