GRETNA, Man. â€” The Manitoba government is transforming a former seniors residence into a reception centre for asylum-seekers who walk across the border.
The centre is being set up in Gretna, Man., an official border crossing close to Emerson where refugee claimants have been walking through fields to reach Canada from the United States.
The province says the centre will provide short-term shelter, food and help with the necessary refugee claimant paperwork.
In an emailed statement, the government says it expects up to 60 people could be housed in the vacant building.
It says the vast majority of asylum-seekers will be moved to Winnipeg within days.
A few hundred people have walked across open fields and through ditches into Manitoba since Jan. 1.
Many of them are originally from African nations and fear deportation from the United States under toughened immigration laws.
They cross unofficially instead of at border posts because of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country agreement. Under that 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 if they manage to get onto Canadian soil some other way.
The government is emphasizing that no one is being displaced from the centre and are telling residents the asylum-seekers don't pose a security threat.
"The processes put in place by Canada Border Services Agency are rigorous. The screening at the border is extensive, and individuals whose identities can't be established, or who have a history of violence, are detained at the border," states a government question-and-answer pamphlet for area residents.
"In the experience of the settlement service providers, there has been no reason to believe asylum-seekers are a specific risk to the community. The individuals and families who come to make a refugee claim do so in order to make a better life for themselves, and are not coming to cause trouble.
"They are seeking safety and security in Canada."
The centre is expected to start receiving refugee claimants this month but it's not a "long-term sustainable strategy.
"It is our hope that by opening up the facility in Gretna, and staffing it with provincial staff, we will be able to gather better data, and improve the predictability of the flow of asylum-seekers into Winnipeg," the government pamphlet says. "This will help us determine our long-term plan."
The Canadian Press