The death of four members of an Indian family at the US-Canada border has once again highlighted the dangerous journeys families are willing to risk for a better life – and the groups that profit from their desperation.
Police in Canada announced on Thursday that the victims, who included a baby and young boy, probably froze to death while attempting to cross into the United States during a blizzard. Seven others survived and were intercepted by police.
“It was an absolutely mind-blowing story. It’s so tragic to see a family die like that, victims of human traffickers … and of people who took advantage of their desire to build a better life,” Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Friday. “This is why we are doing all we can to discourage people from crossing the border in an irregular or illicit manner. We know there are great risks in doing so.”
India’s high commissioner to Canada, Ajay Bisaria, described the deaths as a “grave tragedy”, and announced that a consular team was travelling to Manitoba to aid in the investigation. India’s ambassador to the United States said staff from the Chicago consulate were also heading to Minnesota.
US officials announced the arrest of Steve Shand, who faces charges of human smuggling. Shand, 47, is due to appear in court on 24 January.
“The investigation into the death of the four individuals in Canada is ongoing along with an investigation into a larger human smuggling operation of which Shand is suspected of being a part,” said John Stanley, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, in court documents.
On Wednesday, investigators from the US Department of Homeland Security acted on a tip from a snowplow driver, who spotted Shand’s van stuck in a ditch during the blizzard, according to court documents. The driver helped Shand free the vehicle, and Shand said he was bound for Winnipeg to visit relatives. Authorities say it was the second time he had been in the area.
When the officers stopped the car, near the border crossing at Pembina, North Dakota, they found two Indian nationals with Shand and later intercepted a group of five. All spoke Gujarati, a language from the western region of the country. One told officials he spent a large amount of money to come to Canada under a fake student visa and planned to visit an uncle in Chicago.
In preparation for their journey, the group were wearing brand-new winter clothing, including parkas, boots and gloves. They, along with Shand, had black balaclavas. Officers also found evidence to suggest a baby was travelling with the group, but when they couldn’t find the child, they notified Canadian police.
While the prairie landscape the group traversed is largely flat, the sprawling grain fields are deceptively dangerous in the winter. Cold winds whip relentlessly and blowing snow dramatically reduces visibility. Deep snow drifts make movement slow and tedious. All these difficulties are compounded in the dark, when the family is believed to have made their crossing attempt.
Court documents in the United States also provided a glimpse into the brutal cold the survivors endured. One woman stopped breathing while she was transported by border officials, and required the partial amputation of her hand due to frostbite. Another was also treated for frostbite.
“Smugglers only care about the money they are going to make and have zero regard for lives lost,” Anthony Good, a sector chief border patrol agent in Grand Forks, said in a statement.
The deaths have rattled the community of Emerson, a rural farming town of less than 700 people.
“You just try to figure out why there would be that kind of desperation to cross the border in such terrible weather conditions. Crossing the border in the best of times, you know, is dangerous,” Dave Carlson, a local official for the Emerson-Franklin municipality in Manitoba told a local radio station.
The region has been the site of numerous crossings in recent years – although most were coming from the United States into Canada after the election of former president Donald Trump.
In December 2016, two men lost their fingers to severe frostbite after struggling through waist-deep snow during a blizzard as they crossed into Manitoba. A few months later, a woman died of hypothermia near the border on the American side. Three years ago, a pregnant woman was rescued near the border after she became trapped in a snowbank and went into labor.
The tragic deaths this week serve as a reminder of the risks families are willing to take, Rema Jamous Imseis, the Canadian representative for UNHCR, said in a statement.
“Whatever the circumstances, no one should ever have to choose such a perilous journey.”