Last year, Victoria Ordu and Ihuoma Amadi, two Nigerian students in their third year at the University of Regina, took jobs at a local Walmart. The jobs turned out to be a breach of their student visa, which Ms. Amadi discovered when border agents arrived at her till to arrest her for working illegally.
Ms. Ordu and Ms. Amadi are now part of a small group of refugee claimants hiding out from immigration authorities in churches. They are kept there by no law, and government officials insist they have no legal immunity. And yet, year after year, the practice of church sanctuary continues. In the modern Canadian immigration system, does the medieval right of asylum still have a place?
“Canada has one of the most generous and fair immigration systems in the world, however, we’re not tolerant of those who abuse this generosity by attempting to circumvent our laws,” Lisa White, a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokeswoman, told Postmedia this month in response to the Regina case. But the students are certainly among peers. Last week, Rodney Watson — a U.S. army deserter who was ordered to leave Canada in 2009 — marked his third year living in a United Church on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Eight kilometres away, former KGB agent Mikhail Lennikov is well into his third year at First Lutheran Church.
Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, every church offering sanctuary in those cases was breaking the law. England’s last official sanctuary laws were phased out in the 18th century and any reticence modern day Canadian police have about hauling a refugee claimant out of church in handcuffs is purely tradition.
“It’s a recognition that [churches are] God’s soil,” said Don Hutchinson, general legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Thus, any entity seeking to remove them must seek “extradition from ‘God’s country,’” he said.
The Anglican, Lutheran and United churches, among others, maintain detailed guides advising congregations on how to vet potential refugee claimants, including whether the claimant has a criminal or terrorist past and can “tolerate public and media attention.”
Rosemary Lambie, a senior member of the United Church, has been involved in two sanctuary cases and helped to review plenty more. “In some cases, it’s just because they think Canada’s a nice country and that’s not a good reason,” she said.
Where a congregation’s attitude changes is “when you know that they’re going to face death or torture or imprisonment when they go home.” Canada’s refugee system is designed to shield claimants from mortal danger, but Ms. Lambie said there are still plenty of cracks in the system, be it the bad advice of an immigration consultant, a difficulty with paperwork or even the simple nuances of speaking through a translator.
Sanctuary is a “way of filling in a gap,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “It’s seen as a way for citizens to step up and offer the protections that, unfortunately, in certain cases our government seems to be failing to offer.”
Of course, plenty of sanctuary-seekers do not make the cut. In a 2010 York University research paper, Montreal pastor Darryl Gray said he turns away requests for sanctuary on a weekly basis, “because they are often economic refugees who can’t prove they face physical danger.”
“Not every claimant should remain in Canada,” reads the Anglican Church of Canada’s refugee guide. “In some cases, the most appropriate action for the church is … to help him or her prepare to return home.”
Reginald Stackhouse, an Anglican priest and former Progressive Conservative MP, has often argued that giving sanctuary remains an outdated belief.
“I don’t disagree with efforts to protect people who are being threatened with eviction from the country, but claiming that the government can’t touch you if you go and live in the basement of a church hall is without theological or political foundation,” he said.
The practice is a lingering irritation for immigration authorities. “Nobody is exempt from the law, no matter where you are,” then Liberal immigration minister Judy Sgro told The Canadian Press in 2004, adding that churches should not be used “as a back door to enter Canada.”
In March 2010, the CBSA even updated its enforcement manual to outline when border agents should enter a church, such as when national security is at risk or simply when the “integrity of the system” is threatened.
Nevertheless, in CBSA briefing documents obtained by Postmedia that year, the agency acknowledged the poor optics of sending armed border agents into a church. “There is a relatively even split in public opinion on enforcing removal orders in sanctuary cases … Thus, regardless of what approach is taken, managing public opinion will be a challenge.”
Church arrests are bad optics, particularly as sanctuary-takers are not working illegally or drawing social services, said Sean Rehaag, an associate professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. Besides, “what government wants to take on a religious community acting to uphold the value of providing refuge to strangers in need?” he said.
There are only two cases in which police have entered a church to arrest an individual taking sanctuary — and one of them was accidental. In 2004, police entered a Quebec City church to arrest Algerian national Mohamed Cherfi. Three years later, Iranian refugee claimant Amir Kazemian was arrested inside a Vancouver Anglican church, but only after he called the police to complain about a series of harassing phone calls.
Sanctuary is the lesser of two evils
According to Mr. Stackhouse, sanctuary is “all based on a pre-Christian notion that there are sacred spaces that are beyond the law. I don’t see where that fits in Canada in the 21st century.
Still, it works. In 2003, Ms. Lambie adopted the cases of a Colombian family and an Ethiopian family who both evaded deportation orders by turning to a Montreal United Church for sanctuary. “Both families are now Canadian citizens,” she said.
But, she added, the lengthy sanctuary periods were immense drains on the congregation and “torture” for the claimants.
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