Police investigating the drowning of eight people attempting to cross a river between Canada the the United States are searching for a man believed to be linked to people-smuggling, as new details of the victims emerge.
The bodies of eight people, including two young children, were discovered last week along the marshy banks of the St Lawrence River near the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, which spans Quebec, Ontario and New York state.
The Akwesasne Mohawk police service said on Sunday it was continuing a search for resident Casey Oakes, last spotted boarding a boat similar to the one located near eight drowned migrants.
Police did not say if Oakes, 30, was linked to the deadly crossing.
But the man’s great-uncle Joe Oakes told the Globe and Mail his nephew frequently made the crossing, bringing migrants from Canada into the United States.
“They know the river, but he probably just couldn’t handle it that night,” he said.
Poor weather often creates large swells on the unruly river, which police say was the case last week when the boat carrying eight migrants is believed to have capsized.
Locals, however, say more could have been done to rescue people trapped on the river on Wednesday night.
Danielle Oakes, (who is not related to Casey or Joe Oakes) called the police after she heard shouts of panic coming from the river.
Police say they scanned the river with night vision equipment but failed to see any heat signatures of human bodies, suggesting residents might have heard teenagers gathered near the water.
“All I know when I called the police to report screaming for help coming from the river it was no joke,” Oakes wrote on Facebook. “Why the f [sic] would I call if I heard kids playing as goes for the two other women from our community who also called when they heard the screams for help! Why didn’t they call the fire dept search and rescue ??”
Over the weekend, Akwesasne police identified two of the victims as Florin Iordache and Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache, both 28. The couple were found alongside their two young children, both of whom had Canadian passports. According to federal immigration documents, Florin Iordache’s asylum claim to Canada has been refused and he had been denied his final appeal, clearing the path for deportation by border agents.
Media reports in India have identified the other three victims as Pravin Chaudhary, 50, Vidhi Chaudhary, 24, and Mit Chaudhary, 20. The family is reported to have emigrated from the village of Mehsana in Gujarat state to Canada in recent months. Last year, a young family also left Dingucha in Gujarat and travelled to Canada, but died trying to cross the border during a blizzard.
Police said the territory has increasingly become an ideal location for trafficking of humans and contraband because of its geography.
Officials said that since January, police have made 48 separate interceptions involving 80 people trying to enter the United States from Canada, many of whom are from India and Romania.
In February, police in Akwesasne reported an increase in human smuggling into the Mohawk territory.
On Sunday, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, told a political talkshow in Quebec he wanted to discourage people from putting themselves in danger to cross the border irregularly.
Two weeks ago, Canadian and American officials made controversial changes to an agreement governing how asylum claims are handled, which Trudeau said was an improvement.
But critics of the deal had previously warned the amendments would shift crossings into more dangerous areas.
“These changes will become a ‘job-creation program’ for smugglers,” said Audrey Macklin, a law professor at the University of Toronto and former member of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.
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