The bodies of eight people believed to have died trying to cross from Canada into the United States have been found in the past two days, authorities said on Friday, including two children.
Six people, described as members of two families of Romanian and Indian descent, were found on Thursday in a marshy area of the St Lawrence River, which forms part of the Canada-US border. And on Friday, the bodies of two more migrants were found, bringing the death toll to eight, according to police in the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne.
Shawn Dulude, the Mohawk police chief, said authorities were still looking for a man, identified as Casey Oakes, 30, who was last seen on Wednesday operating a boat that was found next to the bodies.
A child discovered on Friday was a Canadian citizen and a member of the Romanian family, Dulude said. The body of an adult woman believed to be an Indian national was also recovered.
“A total of eight bodies have now been recovered from the waters. All are believed to have been attempting illegal entry into the United States from Canada,” Dulude said.
The territory is known for being a transit point for the trafficking of humans and contraband because of its location. And in February, police in Akwesasne reported an increase in human smuggling into the Mohawk territory.
“Our community has been exploited by this,” said Abram Benedict, grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. “This is not the first time that tragedy has happened in our community like this. We’ve had other losses.”
Weather conditions in the area were rough on Wednesday night, said Lee-Ann O’Brien, deputy chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service.
“This is a heartbreaking situation,” Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said. “We need to understand properly what happened, how it happened and do whatever we can to minimize the chances of this ever happening again.”
Akwesasne police say there have been about 80 people trying to cross illegally into Canada or into the United States through the Mohawk territory since January, and most of them have been of Indian or Romanian descent. In April 2022, six Indian nationals were rescued from a sinking boat in the St Regis River, which runs through Akwesasne Mohawk territory.
Akwesasne straddles the Canada-United States border, and has territory in Quebec, Ontario and New York state.
Tony Jackson, an Akwesasne resident, said the weather Wednesday, when Oakes was last seen, was calm during the day but later turned rough.
“The east wind around here creates a lot of waves, 5ft tall, maybe taller,” Jackson said. He said he believed Oakes’s boat was less than 6m (20ft) long.
Crossing the river on a little boat with many people on board, “that called for disaster”, he said.
He said he had never heard Oakes talk about transporting migrants. But Jackson said he had personally witnessed groups of migrants crossing through fields with bags in hand and also occasionally seen boats carrying large groups of people across the river.
“A couple of times in one month, you’ll see a couple of them walking down the road with all their bags,” he said.