By Rod Nickel and Anna Mehler Paperny
WINNIPEG, Manitoba/BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - Refugees in the United States fearing a worsening climate of xenophobia in the wake of a divisive U.S. presidential campaign are flocking to Canada in growing numbers.
Manitoba's Welcome Place refugee agency helped 91 claimants between Nov. 1 and Jan. 25 - more than the agency normally sees in a year. Most braved the freezing prairie winter to walk into Canada.
"We haven't had something before like this," said Maggie Yeboah, president of the Ghanaian Union of Manitoba, which has helped refugees get medical attention and housing. "We don't know what to do."
A temporary restraining order by a U.S. judge of President Donald Trump's executive order that blocked nationwide the implementation of key parts of the travel ban has provided a reprieve for refugees trying to come to the United States.
But Canadian advocacy organizations are bracing for a greater influx of asylum-seekers, driven in part by the contrast between the ruling Liberal government's acceptance of Syrian refugees in Canada with Trump's anti-foreigner rhetoric.
"They will make a dash for Canada, whether they are going to go through cold weather to die or not," said Abdikheir Ahmed, a Somali immigrant in Manitoba's capital Winnipeg who helps refugees make claims.
Since late summer, 27 men from Ghana walked to Manitoba from the United States, Yeboah said. Two lost all their fingers to frostbite in December and nearly froze to death.
More than 7,000 refugee applicants entered Canada in 2016 through land ports of entry from the United States, up 63 percent from the previous year, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
Over 2,000 more entered "irregularly" during a similar time period, without official authorization, such as across unmonitored fields.
Four hundred and thirty asylum seekers crossed Manitoba's border irregularly in the first nine months of 2016-17, up from 340 the entire previous year, CBSA said.
"The U.S. presidential campaign, putting undocumented immigrants and refugees in the spotlight, terrified them," said Ghezae Hagos, counselor at Welcome Place. "The election and inauguration of Mr. Trump appears to be the final reason for those who came mostly last month."
In Quebec, 1,280 refugee claimants irregularly entered between April 2016 and January 2017, triple the previous year's total.
In British Columbia and Yukon, 652 people entered Canada irregularly in 2016, more than double the previous year.
More of these people would enter at border crossings, advocates say, if Canada didn't have a policy of turning many of them away when they do. The 2004 Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement requires people to apply for asylum in the first of the two countries they arrive in. Advocates argue the agreement inadvertently encourages people to dangerously sneak into Canada and make a claim rather than be rebuffed at the border.
If the government doesn't abandon this agreement, they say, it could find itself in court.
The number of refugee applicants crossing the land border under exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement has risen by 16 percent in the first nine months of 2016 compared to the same time period the year before.
In Buffalo, New York, hundreds of people are streaming through Vive, a shelter that helps refugee applicants to Canada.
Vive’s client numbers, including long-time U.S. residents and refugees, spiked last summer and have stayed consistently high since – two or three times what they’d normally see a year or two ago. Vive's Canadian service manager Mariah Walker expects to see even more.
"Clients are definitely spooked by (Trump's) executive orders," said Walker.
Prime Minister Trudeau took office in 2015 on a commitment to admit tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
"While the majority of the world is turning their backs and building walls, the fact that Trudeau took this bold humanitarian goal put [Canada] on the map," said Chris Friesen, director of settlement services at Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia.
But this year, Canada plans to take only 7,500 government-assisted refugees - less than half last year's number. People eager to sponsor refugees find themselves waiting years to do so.
Anisa Hussein, 20, and Lyaan Mohammed, 19, hired a smuggler to take them from Somalia to Minneapolis in August, where they planned to settle in a large Somali community. But Trump's anti-refugee rhetoric frightened them into traveling to Manitoba days later.
"(Trump) said he would turn away the refugees and we would go back to Somalia," said Mohammed, peeking timidly from behind the hood of a thick parka she received in Canada for winter. "We were so scared. We just wanted to be [in] a safe place."
They rode a bus and taxi to North Dakota, then walked for hours into Emerson, Manitoba and filed refugee claims.
They might have been able to cross at a port of entry if Canada's policies were different, says Canadian Council for Refugees executive director Janet Dench.
Her organization, as well as Amnesty International and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, are demanding Canada abandon the Safe Third Country Agreement: Trump's United States is no safe haven, they argue.
The government is standing by the agreement, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told the House of Commons last week.
If the government doesn't act, Dench said, her group will sue.
"We are talking about people’s charter rights. … So, yes, we would expect to see something in the courts."
(Additional writing by Andrea Hopkins; additional reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver, editing by Edward Tobin)