Woman’s arrest shocks neighbours
City resident accused of smuggling asylum seekers across U.S. border
As locals on Truesdale Drive went about their business on Wednesday, one resident described Michelle Omoruyi and her family as “regular neighbours,” and expressed shock that the Regina woman has been charged with smuggling people across the U.S. border.
The 43-year-old faces one count of human smuggling and one count of conspiracy to commit human smuggling, after a four-month RCMP investigation into asylum seekers crossing into Saskatchewan.
As part of the probe, nine foreign nationals were intercepted in a vehicle on Friday night after crossing north from the U.S. in an area between the North Portal and Northgate ports of entry. Omoruyi is alleged to have been driving the vehicle.
On Wednesday at Omoruyi’s home — which had been searched by authorities on Saturday before charges were laid — three vehicles sat in the driveway, but no one answered the door and the blinds were drawn. Dogs could be heard barking inside.
One neighbour who did not wish to be named said she knew the family as “regular neighbours” to whom she said hello on occasion. She had seen the story in the news but did not realize Omoruyi was the person charged, she said.
Another neighbour, again not wishing to be named, said he had noticed unusual police presence in the area “about two weeks ago,” but had not noticed anything untoward since.
“At one time I used to know all my neighbours, but not anymore,” he said of the area where “people mostly keep to themselves.”
Contacted at her workplace in Regina, Omoruyi’s mother Linda MacLeod said, “I know nothing,” before adding that the first she had heard of the charges was when the news was announced by RCMP. An aunt of Omoruyi’s said Wednesday afternoon that she, at that point, was not aware of the charges.
At a press conference Wednesday, the RCMP said the nine people — who are all seeking asylum in Canada — were not injured and were safely transferred into Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) custody, before being processed and released.
RCMP did not confirm the age, sex or nationalities of the individuals, but revealed that the nine are from West Africa.
“The CBSA has been investigating organized human smuggling in southeastern Saskatchewan since December of 2016,” said Jason Evert, assistant director with the CBSA.
“On Dec. 23, 2016, CBSA officers at North Portal referred a returning male resident for further examination. The CBSA launched an investigation as a result of the information uncovered during this examination, and began co-ordinating its efforts with the RCMP.”
“Throughout the course of the investigation, the CBSA uncovered evidence to suggest suspected smugglers were allegedly bringing foreign nationals into Canada from the United States by facilitating their illegal crossing between designated ports of entry.”
Evert said on Friday U.S. Customs had identified a suspect as he entered the U.S. at Portal North Dakota. The American agency then notified the CBSA, which let the RCMP know that a smuggling attempt might be on the cards.
At 9 p.m. that day, RCMP said they pulled over a woman driving on the Canada side of the border, with the nine people in her vehicle.
The next day, RCMP with the assistance of CBSA and Regina police, executed a search warrant at the 2900 block of Truesdale Drive. RCMP said, “evidence and a significant amount of cash was seized from the residence.”
“A fair portion of this currency was foreign currency,” said RCMP Insp. Donovan Fisher.
Omoruyi was subsequently charged and will make her first appearance at Estevan provincial court on May 15.
With figures released Wednesday by the federal government showing a considerable spike in asylum claim “interceptions” from January into March, critics have blamed the Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the U.S. for the rise in border jumping.
The agreement states that people can’t make refugee claims at Canada-U.S. land border crossing points because they should have lodged one in the country they first entered.
“The impact of the Safe Third Country agreement has been to give business to people smugglers, to force people who are trying to save their lives as refugees to turn to people who are trying to make money off this situation,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Dench said smugglers take advantage of people not knowing that they don’t need to pay somebody to cross.
“To avoid the Safe Third Country (agreement), you just need to present yourself at some point other than the port of entry,” she said.
In the RM of Enniskillen, which covers the Northgate crossing, locals said that last Thursday night RCMP officers attended the council meeting, asking if anyone had heard anything about asylum seekers crossing the border in the area.
When councillors said they hadn’t, the RCMP told the council to let them handle anything with regard to any illegal border crossers, locals said.
Richard Tessier, reeve of the nearby RM of Coalfields (Northgate crossing) said the news didn’t shock him, but neither had he noticed any heightened security at the border in the past few months.
“Not really surprised, with it happening in Manitoba as often as it was and because I’m born and raised in the RM, I know exactly what the border consists of and it’s not surprising that they’re in between Portal and Northgate, that they’d be jumping the border,” he said.
“The way the oilfield is, there’s a lot of new faces in town and it’s been that way for the last couple of years. There’s some problems with language barriers and all that. They could blend in very easily because of that.
“You can’t find help, so we’ve had a lot of transients show up in town looking for jobs.”
RCMP Insp. Donovan Fisher of F Division federal operations and national security, and Jason Evert, assistant director with Canada Border Service Agency, speak at a news conference Wednesday in Regina.