Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends Question Period in Ottawa. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

For the past two decades, my late-night trips to 24-hour Tim Hortons restaurants have been synonymous with fear. It’s not the artery-clogging threat of consuming sprinkled Timbits that has made my heart race, however. Rather, it is the look of terror on the faces of those who have requested a meeting.

They are some of the most vulnerable people one could meet. They share a common stigma stamped on them by a callous immigration bureaucracy. They are known by the insulting moniker of “failed” refugee claimants, and have become part of what the Canadian government inhumanely calls its “removals inventory.”

As we sit with our coffees and crullers in what is often the only “neutral” venue available, they look over their shoulders, shrink in their seats, and express their dismay that no one believes them when they document how they were tortured. Furthermore, authorities have dismissed the grave threat they face if deported back to their home country.

Usually, they are couch surfing, because an arrest warrant has been issued, and officers of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) have been banging on the doors of their former home or questioning friends and neighbours. They are at heightened risk of being exploited because, ironically, to live underground with those they know best — often individuals who are also known to CBSA because they are mentioned in the individual’s case history — is to expose them to the higher likelihood of being apprehended, detained, and deported.

Alternatives to death planes

Because of my work with the Anne Frank Sanctuary Committee — which seeks to open church doors and provide a relatively safe space for such refugees until their cases can somehow be reconsidered — I often get calls seeking both a meeting and an alternative to boarding what can only be called a personal death plane. When we sit and go through the paperwork, it is often quite easy to see how someone who has been through hell has nonetheless been failed by a system that refuses to recognize the obstacles it places in the way of those desperately crying out for safety.

Like women who seek justice in the courts after being abused by the men in their lives, refugees are “tested” for their credibility by questions that are traumatizing and demeaning. Indeed, there are countless cases where individuals with the clear signs of physical torture have been told they had no proof that what had happened to them was done at the hands of police forces. (Violence workers do not issue certificates to their victims congratulating them on surviving a course of torture). LGBTQ2 refugees have been rejected because they are “not gay enough,” while those women and children fleeing the violent men in their lives have been told they can simply move to another part of the country and seek the protection of police forces who are notorious for failing survivors of male violence (just like here).

Life and death issues of refugee acceptance are left to a system with well-documented bias. Indeed, vast discrepancies in acceptance rates based on which Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicator hears one’s case are released annually. Often, a refugee has the misfortunate of hiring a lawyer with little or no experience in refugee law. Sometimes, incorrectly filling out the paperwork is held against them as well.

Once the deportation date has been issued — and even after it has passed, and a warrant is now out as well — the options are going underground, taking a very risky chance on a deportation flight, or seeking sanctuary. Although the last of those journeys can prove excruciating — oftentimes long years spent inside of a church — they more often than not prove successful when a solid team of advocates and community grow around an individual or family and prepare the path necessary for reconsideration of a “failed” case.

Sanctuary works

The issue of refugees at risk is top of mind this week because I just got the good news that someone facing torture in their home country was just accepted as a permanent resident after three years in church sanctuary. Last month, someone who is now a Canadian citizen who also spent time in sanctuary as a “failed” refugee claimant sent me a picture of her baby. And earlier this year, pictures arrived of a joyous wedding from someone who, had they not entered sanctuary, would likely be in an overseas torture dungeon or dead.

These three individuals — and many more — are alive and safe because they sought and received church sanctuary. The toll of years of fear and suffering — even while surrounded by loving communities of faithful supporters — is incalculable, but they knew going into sanctuary that the path would be difficult.

It really should not have to be this way. But rather than making the kinds of improvements that would ease the lives of those who arrive in the territory known as Canada, the Trudeau regime — mortally wounded by scandals ranging from SNC to the upcoming revelations of the Mark Norman trial and the purchase of $105-billion warships — has decided to tack right and attack refugees going into election 2019.

Indeed, the man who won Rolling Stone covers and breathless praise for a couple of disingenuous tweets about Canada being “welcoming” to refugees has inserted into his last budget new changes that will make refugees’ lives even more challenging. Bill C-97, an omnibus budget bill, has embedded these dangerous changes, which the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) says will “place many people at increased risk of being sent back to face persecution, in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and of Canada’s international human rights obligations.”

Because the proposed changes mean someone who made a claim in another country will be ineligible for a hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), the CCR says:

“[n]umerous refugee claimants, who may need Canada’s protection because they face persecution, torture or death in their country of origin, will be denied access to Canada’s refugee determination system. They will have access only to a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA), a process that provides much less fairness than a hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board…. With this proposal, Canada is shamefully joining too many other countries who respond to increased numbers of refugees not by matching capacity to needs, but by closing the door on people fleeing rights abuses.”

In addition, the changes include extending the timeline of prohibitions on applications for Pre-Removal Risk Assessment and humanitarian and compassionate consideration for refugee claimants who apply to the Federal Court for judicial review of failed decisions at the IRB. Currently, they cannot apply for either for a full year after their IRB decision; under the proposed changes, that 12-month clock will only start ticking after a decision from the Federal Court on an application for judicial review. In practice, this means they will be “removal ready” much sooner and much longer, leading many a desperate individual and family with the unenviable lack of choices described above: leaving to face danger, going underground where they face increased risk of exploitation, or seeking church sanctuary.

Combined with cuts to legal aid in Ontario under white supremacist enabler Premier Doug Ford, the risk for large numbers of asylum seekers will be significantly heightened.

Scapegoating rhetoric

These changes are accompanied by the kind of scapegoating rhetoric that further demonizes those whose only “crime” is doing whatever they can to escape persecution. Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair has been accusing those who have made refugee claims elsewhere of “asylum shopping” when they come to Canada. The media regularly trots out the tired and inflammatory terms of “irregular border crossers” and “illegal immigrants,” ignoring the fact that the U.S. is not a safe country in which to make a refugee claim, especially under the dictatorial powers being wielded by a Trump administration that locks children in freezing boxes and deliberately separates families.

Indeed, look no further than the infamous case of two men who almost froze to death as they tried to cross into Manitoba in 2016. Ghanaian refugee Seidu Mohammed — who lost all his fingers to frostbite — and another man who lost some of his fingers, Razak Iyal, were both rejected by U.S. authorities but accepted as refugees in Canada. They would fall under Blair’s ill considered “asylum shopping” definition and, under the proposed new rules, be turned back to the U.S.

Blair spokesperson Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux trotted out the usual rationale that such repressive measures will “encourage those who truly need protection to seek asylum at the first possible opportunity, while those who do not need to follow the rules.” Of course, this “deterrent” is meaningless since most refugee claimants do not sit in war zones or detention camps reading the minutiae of Canada’s refugee regulations before determining how and where they will seek safety. The government’s division of “deserving” versus “undeserving” refugees disturbingly mirrors the divide-and-rule austerity regimes use in defining the “truly needy” versus those “underserving” of social assistance.

Completely lost in this discussion is the fact that it is in fact difficult to get directly to Canada without travelling through another country first.

Indeed, the CBSA Multiple Borders Strategy — a kind of “we own the world” approach — extends Canada’s borders to wherever CBSA wants them to go. Indeed, the CBSA “defines a border for immigration purposes as any point at which the identity of the traveller can be verified…[viewing] the border not as a geopolitical line but rather a continuum of checkpoints along a route of travel from the country of origin to Canada or the United States.” A listing of their overseas liaison officers and countries of responsibility indicates that for Canada, the border can include everything from Amman, Jordan to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Lima, Peru.

CBSA regularly prides itself on “interdiction” of refugees overseas, preventing them from boarding ships or planes. In addition, it also has a memorandum of understanding that penalizes airlines if individuals get on board without proper identity documents (despite the fact that many refugees cannot travel using their own names). Thus, the long arm of the Canadian government is subcontracted to private industry, where the incentive to kick refugees off of planes before they can fly to safety is part of ensuring a healthy bottom line.

Deportation quotas

Meanwhile, the Trudeau regime is also continuing the brutal Harper era’s repression against immigrants and refugees with new quotas for deportations.

Last fall, the CBC reported on a new system of robust quotas that would increase deportations by upwards of 35 per cent. While refuges advocates have long known that deportation quotas have been official Canadian policy, it was reiterated in a reminiscing internal memo from Brad Wozny, the director of Canada Border Services Agency’s Enforcement and Intelligence Operations. 

“Over the last few weeks I have been involved in several discussions both regionally and nationally concerning the Government of Canada’s decision to substantially increase removal efforts including the re-establishment of national and regional targets, a practice many of you may still remember,” Wozny wrote to staff, echoing similarly cruel policies south of the border. “Initial discussions have the agency working towards a new national target of 10,000 removals/year. This would imply about a 25-35 per cent increase over the last couple years.”

During the bleakest years under Harper, deportations ranged as high as 18,987 in 2012.

These Trudeau changes clearly violate Canada’s international legal commitments, and come about 10 months after Trudeau sanctimoniously tut-tutted to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, “It didn’t seem to me that the premier was quite as aware of our international obligations to the UN convention on refugees, as he might have been. So I spent a little time explaining how the asylum-seeker system works and how our system is supposed to operate.”

Choices must be made

As more refugees find themselves in desperate circumstances, one thing communities of faith can do is open up their doors and refuse to look the other way when someone knocks on their door. If the proposed Trudeau changes go through, thousands more will be at risk of deportation to a grave fate.

The experience of the Anne Franck Sanctuary Committee and related groups in helping churches to live out one of their oldest core values — welcoming the stranger — has met with mixed success at best. Indeed, it often takes casting a wide net of inquiries ­perhaps 50 to 60 — before one church will even consider offering sanctuary. Yet most major Christian denominations have very clear policies on the issue.

The United Church of Canada’s 34th General Council endorsed “the moral right and responsibility of congregations to provide sanctuary to legitimate refugee claimants who have been denied refugee status.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declared in 2005 that:

“Sanctuary is never a solution for asylum seekers, but may be a step along their journey toward social justice. Each Christian community, after an in-depth study of refugee policies and prayerful discernment, in consultation with diocesan authorities, is called to act in a spirit of hospitality as the Gospel demands.

“According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2242, ‘The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.’ As an Episcopal Conference, the CCCB acknowledges the importance of the recourse to sanctuary in order to protect asylum seekers whose safety may be placed in jeopardy. Even though it may not be officially recognized in law, we call upon Canadian authorities to respect the sanctity of sanctuaries.”

Writing in December, 1945, Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, reminded us, “it is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.” She notes that for early generations of Christians, “in every house then a room was kept ready for any stranger who might ask for shelter; it was even called ‘the strangers’ room.'”

As individuals and congregations discuss their obligations to refugees, hopefully they will see provision of sanctuary not only as a moral duty, but also a civil initiative that is in fact an act wholly in concert with Canadian immigration law as well as the covenants and treaties to which Canada has long been a less-than-compliant party.

In the meantime, immediate pressure is required to halt the new changes embedded in Bill C-97, which will be before the House Finance committee later this week. To learn more about these changes, visit this link.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. ‘national security’ profiling for many years.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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Photo of Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.