Beyond Borders: Church Sanctuary for Refugees in Canada

Since 1983 when a Guatemalan refugee sought sanctuary in a Montreal church there have been hundreds of such cases in Canada.  However, the pace quickened after 2002 when Canada‘s new Refugee Protection Act was applied.

The new legislation established a changed procedure.  Prior to the act, a panel of two people heard applications for refugee status; if either found for the claimant, status was granted. The 2002 legislation provided for just a single-person hearing. The redeeming feature was the provision in the act for an appeals division.

At the time that the new legislation was developed, refugee advocates were assured that the appeals procedure would make up for the fact that only one person would hear a case.  While the law provides for the appeals body, governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have refused to implement it.  Nick Summers, then vice-president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, referred to this sleight of hand on the part of the government as “a betrayal”.

The members who hear appeals are political appointees with widely varied competence and with a record of grossly different rates of granting refugee status. Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Marina Jimenez found that the rate of approval varied among members of the hearing panel from zero to 80%. 

In Ottawa, there is now one man in sanctuary, but until recently there were three others.  While their circumstances were quite different from one another, they had two things in common.  For one thing, they all were eventually given permission to stay in Canada. The other thing that they had in common was that they all had the same hearing officer, a man appointed by the Liberals and who contributed to that party. 

When a person’s refugee status is denied, there are three possible legal avenues to avoid deportation.  First, the person can appeal to the courts.  However, an appeal to the courts can take place on matters of law only, not on the facts of the case.  It is also possible to make an appeal to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.  Finally, prior to deportation there is a pre-removal risk assessment, which considers the danger that a person might suffer if returned to another country.  However, the lack of an appeal as to facts of a case combined with the elimination of the two-person panels has created a situation that leaves claimants at the mercy of a seriously flawed system for determination of claims.

Let us take a look at the three Ottawa cases mentioned, to get some flavor of the variety of cases out there.  The first of the three to go into sanctuary was Samsu Mia, a Muslim man who took sanctuary in the First Unitarian Church.  He had been physically abused by his employer, an official of the Bangladeshi High Commission, and his pay had been withheld.  After being assaulted, he fled and denounced the treatment he had received among his fellow Bangladeshis in Ottawa.  He took refuge in the church. 

His claim was denied on grounds that the issue was one of a labor-management dispute rather than of political danger.  In fact, back home a son was dragged from class and brutally beaten because he spoke of his father’s treatment in Ottawa.  The personal had become political.  As well, Amnesty International reported that people who criticized public officials were apt to be imprisoned and maltreated.  The local Liberal MP convinced her colleague, the Minister responsible, to relent and allow Mia to stay and bring his family.

Maoua Diomande was the second person to go into sanctuary in Ottawa.  She is from the Ivory Coast.  A teacher, many of her students were of Burkina Faso background, and the military dictatorship was engaged in a civil war against a force led by a man of that ethnic origin.  As Maoua expressed it, the government was xenophobic and engaged in a “witch hunt”. 

Maoua came to the dictatorship’s attention because she organized the mothers of her children to form a co-op to grow produce, raising money for school supplies, and to give them a measure of financial independence.  In the first place, the government did not like the idea of any organization that they did not control.  In addition, the women were Burkinabé.  The army came to town to search for subversive elements that might assist the enemy, and they also wanted to teach the teacher a lesson.  They went to her house and gang-raped her and a female relative.

When Maoua’s case was heard, the hearing officer did not believe that she had been raped.  Later, she obtained medical evidence from Ivory Coast to prove that she had been telling the truth, but there was no appeal body to which she could present the evidence.  A convert from Islam to Catholicism, she took refuge in the Eglise du Sacré-Coeur.  Eventually she was allowed to stay in Canada when it was established that her English at the time of the hearing was poor and that her preferred language was French.  The hearing was in English, but in Canada great weight is given to a person’s right to choose either English or French in official federal governmental matters.

The third case is that of Moti Nano, an Ethiopian from the Oromo ethnic group.  Moti, the son of a Lutheran pastor, was engaged by a church organization as a human rights worker, a dangerous calling in Ethiopia, especially for an Oromo.  The Ethiopian government is in conflict with the Oromo Liberation Front.  The government killed his brother, whom they accused of participation in the Front. Moti himself was arrested and tortured on more than one occasion.  He came to Canada to attend an international human rights training conference in Montreal, and when he heard that some people were asking around conference as to where they could find an Ethiopian in attendance, he quickly left the sessions and sought asylum.

Moti was turned down because the hearing officer did not believe that he was in serious danger should he return. Amnesty International has a much more troubling picture of the situation in Ethiopia.  Moti took refuge in All Saints Lutheran Church, the church of which he was a member.  He was recently granted permission to stay.

The Ottawa examples are a sample of the cases turned down.  There is another man, a Nepalese, in the Ottawa Unitarian Church.  Other refugees have gone into sanctuary in Montreal, Vancouver, Quebec City, Winnipeg, and even in the small community of North Hatley, Quebec. The problem is simple: the Canadian government refuses to implement its own legislation.  It has, by default, turned churches into the appeal procedure.  While there is no legal basis for sanctuary, and while politicians are very unhappy with what the churches are doing, the government is loath to invade churches to take people away, though it has done so on a couple of occasions. 

In one case, in an Anglican church in Vancouver, police took the man into custody when he called them about someone trying to defraud him and threatening him in a small business he operated from the church.  However, on the basis of the pre-removal threat assessment, he was permitted to stay.  In another case, a man who was an activist for refugee rights was taken into custody in a United Church in Quebec City and handed over to American authorities, as he had come to Canada from the United States.  However, the United States granted him refugee status.  He then applied for and received landed immigrant status back in Canada.

Clearly, the refugee determination procedures in Canada are in vast disarray. They need more humanity and more substance.  Bring on the appeals division.

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelancer and social worker living in Val-des-Monts, Quebec. 

Photo from Indymedia