04/02/2017 18:55 EDT | Updated 04/03/2018 01:12 EDT

Asylum seeker's future in limbo after near-fatal border crossing in Quebec

It has been two weeks since Mamadou left the refugee detention centre, three weeks since he left the hospital, and a month since he was found collapsed in the snow, too frozen to move.

His feet, damaged by frostbite, are slowly healing, though his toes are still blue in some places and peeling in others, and they still hurt too much to wear shoes.

And so, in sandals and sports socks, Mamadou makes the two-block walk from the YMCA residence where he lives to a bustling shopping centre at the west end of downtown Montreal.

He comes here often, sometimes even three times a day.

"It helps me forget what I'm going through," he said during a lunchtime meeting earlier this week in the food court at the Alexis Nihon mall.

Mamadou, whose last name is being withheld protect his identity, is hoping to make a life in Montreal after an arduous, hours-long trek through the forest into Canada on March 5.

A day earlier, he tried to make a refugee claim at an official port of entry between Quebec and New York, but was refused, making him ineligible to claim asylum under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement.

Advocates point to his harrowing tale as proof the decade-old pact should be suspended in the age of President Donald Trump.

His case has attracted the attention of lawyers, politicians and human rights activists. This week, two representatives from Amnesty International visited to hear his story.

Loopholes and uncertainty

The Safe Third Country Agreement, made official in 2004, means that asylum seekers who have landed in either the U.S. or Canada are denied a chance to seek refuge in the other at official entry points.

They can still, however, make a claim by crossing illegally — but only if they haven't tried legally first.

As a consequence, an increasing number of people are walking into Canada through illegal entry points since Trump was elected.

Mamadou, originally from Ivory Coast, worked as a cab driver in New York City for the past 10 years.

He didn't know about the illegal-crossing loophole, or that many asylum seekers now walk into Canada at the end of Roxham Road, not far from the official border at Lacolle, Que.

He didn't plan to come Canada.

It was only at the beginning of last month, when a neighbour told him immigration officers had repeatedly come searching for him at his apartment in the Bronx, that he decided to flee.

Mamadou says he watched rebels shoot his father, a prominent businessman in Abidjan, and burn down the family home. He has no idea where his remaining relatives are now,

His initial asylum application was rejected when he landed in the U.S. in 2006, but he was allowed to stay temporarily given the danger in his home country.

He fears he will be killed if forced to return.

Mamadou was released from detention on bail by the Immigration and Refugee Board on March 16, but his status is still unclear.

Éric Taillefer, his lawyer, says that if Mamadou had initially crossed illegally, his chances of being allowed to stay would be far higher — around 60 per cent. That's now far less likely.

Taillefer is examining whether to contest the agreement in Federal Court as a way of allowing his client to remain in Canada.

"When you see cases like Mamadou, where basically they put their lives at risk because of the agreement, there is a basis for Charter challenge. The only thing is that finding the perfect case to bring up is going to be a tough one," Taillefer told CBC's The House.

Haunting journey

In conversation over lunch, Mamadou returns repeatedly to the night he crossed into Canada, when the temperature hovered around -15 C.

The memory still haunts him, he says.

He walked through the woods connecting New York and Quebec for hours, his feet at one point plunging into a frozen stream.

"I don't have no watch, no phone, just walking. No light, no map," he says, recalling the hours-long struggle in the darkness.

Finally, he says, he saw a street light in the distance, and followed it. 

He knew he was in Canada when he saw a stop sign with the word arrêt.

Mamadou was found by an RCMP officer on patrol near the border, who said he wouldn't have survived much longer had he not been spotted on the side of the road.

He hopes to meet the officer again, and thank him for saving his life.

A future in Montreal?

For now, Mamadou's home is the YMCA residence on Tupper Street in Westmount, where many refugee claimants stay while awaiting their next step.

The days inside the residence, staffed with volunteers and social workers, are punctuated by the three scheduled meal times in the cafeteria.

In the evenings, he watches soccer — his favourite sport — in the common room or chats with others staying at the residence.

The clothes Mamadou was wearing when he walked into Canada were cut off at the hospital where he was treated for frostbite, but he found two pairs of pants that fit among the offerings at the YMCA.

Someone gave him winter jacket when he was recovering at the hospital.

Eventually, he's hoping to be able to put shoes back on.

Although Mamadou doesn't know anyone in Montreal, aside from his lawyer, he speaks French and English and says he already feels comfortable in the city.

Eventually, he'd like to get a work permit and an apartment of his own.

"I drove a cab in New York City, I can do it here," he says.