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Asylum-seekers use social media to figure out how to reach Canada

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CHAMPLAIN, NY — Reinel Alfonso stepped out of the taxi and took in his surroundings. The dead-end road, lined with signs warning him to “Stop” before entering an “illegal border crossing,” looked exactly as it had in the videos he’d seen on the internet.

Alfonso told INSIDER he flew to the United States from Bogota, Colombia, nearly 3,000 miles away. He was here in rural, upstate New York, just feet from the Canadian border, to try to save his own life.

“My country, how do you say, my life,” he explained in halting English. “I cannot stay in my country.”

Alfonso said he left Colombia because members of the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had threatened his life.

“They called me and they wanted to meet me, with guns, and take me,” he said. “[They] said, ‘We will kill you.'”

When asked how he decided on Canada, and how he learned of the well-traveled route through upstate New York, Alfonso gave a sheepish smile.

“The internet,” he said. “Videos.”

Alfonso, from Bogota, spoke to INSIDER at the US-Canadian border in October.
Marisa Palmer/INSIDER

Alfonso is one of some 40,000 people intercepted while illegally crossing the Canadian border in the last two years, according to Canadian government data. Many of those people were asylum-seekers traveling to Canada via the US, and many of them crossed at the exact same spot Alfonso did — at the dead end of Roxham Road in the village of Champlain.

Read more: THE OTHER BORDER ‘CRISIS’: While America is fixated on Mexico and the wall, thousands of migrants are fleeing for Canada in a dramatically different scene

Janet McFetridge, Champlain’s deputy mayor, meets migrants like Alfonso every day. She parks her SUV at the end of Roxham Road with a trunk full of winter wear, ready to outfit migrants with mittens or a hat before they cross.

She told INSIDER she often hears that online videos serve as a how-to guide for prospective asylum-seekers looking to flee their countries, but are unsure how to get to a safe place.

YouTube, for instance, is rife with videos from American and Canadian news outlets showing what the Roxham Road border crossing looks like, and how other migrants approach it.

“People have told me that they watch videos and the videos explained the process,” she said. “I personally haven’t watched any of the videos, but [the asylum-seekers] say that explains the process and things to be concerned about and how it works and what they need to be doing … So between word of mouth and YouTube videos, I think that’s how the word is spreading.”

McFetridge said she doesn’t much care how migrants found out about Roxham Road, or where they come from. Her focus is on giving them a kind word and some warm clothes, as many of them aren’t properly dressed for the frigid Canadian weather.

Alfonso said he didn’t know a single person in Canada, and had no idea what fate would await him when he crossed to the other side of the border to request asylum. But he’d decided to take the risk.

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