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Sanctuary in the spotlight

By David Wilson

The spotlight trained on the sanctuary movement this summer was a mixed blessing for the United Church. On one hand it illuminated flaws in Canada's immigration system that the United Church and other denominations say imperil refugees. On the other, it drew attention to a movement that has worked best when it operates inconspicuously.

Immigration Minister Judy Sgro touched off intense media scrutiny and public debate when she told churches to get out of the sanctuary business. The churches responded by saying they offer sanctuary because the current system for screening refugees is inadequate, shutting the door on claimants who may deserve a second chance and who may face persecution or death if they're deported. The 12 congregations from various Canadian denominations currently believed to be harbouring refugees at risk ignored the minister's call. They did so quietly, in the conviction that sanctuary is a time-honoured last resort for people whom the system has failed.

As the furor mounted, sanctuary-offering denominations galvanized into a united front that met Sgro's remarks with tough talk of its own. "Sanctuary is a movement that will be stopped only by justice," refugee activist and author Mary Jo Leddy told a Toronto press conference. "Until there is the possibility of appealing an unjust ruling, sanctuary will continue to grow." The United Church has joined Anglican, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian counterparts in signing on to a national campaign urging Ottawa to implement a new appeal mechanism for refugee claimants. The campaign is being mounted by the ecumenical justice coalition Kairos.

Sanctuary emerged from the shadows late last winter when police entered a Quebec City United Church and removed Mohamed Cherfi, a 35-year-old Algerian refugee claimant. Arrested on a technicality not directly related to his refugee claim, Cherfi was taken from Eglise Unie Saint-Pierre, transferred to the Canadian Border Service then handed over to U.S. immigration officials. He has spent the last several months in a detention centre near Buffalo, N.Y., awaiting an asylum hearing now scheduled for this month.

Cherfi's seizure, believed to be the first time police have removed a refugee from sanctuary in a Canadian church, prompted heated reaction. Church and other groups argued that police had violated a centuries-old convention that enshrines holy places as safe harbours from over-zealous secular authorities. The action also soured already strained relations between the United Church and the immigration minister. The church, along with ecumenical partners, has been critical of Sgro's failure to implement a merit-based appeal procedure set out in refugee legislation passed in 2001. The procedure would allow refugees to appeal rejected claims on the basis of new and compelling evidence. The current system only allows for procedural appeals.

In early July, United Church officials including Rev. Jim Sinclair, the general secretary of the General Council, met with senior immigration department officials in Ottawa to air out issues stemming from the Quebec City incident. Sinclair says the meeting was friendly and productive. The delegation came away confident enough to encourage the two Montreal United churches currently harbouring refugees to proceed with requests for a ministerial order that would allow the refugees to leave the churches and seek new hearings.

Sgro's comments to a Canadian Press reporter less than three weeks later caught everyone off-guard. "It's a very difficult issue to deal with," she was quoted as saying, "and frankly if we start using the churches as a back door to enter Canada, we're going to have huge problems.

"Nobody is exempt from the law.... Sooner or later the day will come when someone will remove you."

Sgro's remarks -- "totally contradictory to her bureaucrats," in Sinclair's view -- sparked nationwide news coverage and editorial reaction. Open-line radio shows had a field day. While the issue is ecumenical, its roots in the Cherfi seizure put the United Church at centre-stage. As chief spokesperson, Sinclair defended sanctuary as "a safety valve or shock absorber that allows people to step back into their respective corners to look at the evidence more rationally." He chose his words to reporters carefully, and his tone was conciliatory. He pointed out that Canadian churches have sponsored tens of thousands of refugees over the years, in effect making the government and churches partners in the refugee process. "Nobody is out to embarrass the government," he said.

Elsewhere, anger was more visible. At the Toronto press conference, Tom Reilly, general secretary of the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, labelled Sgro's remarks "insensitive, deliberate and demeaning," designed to "foment prejudice" against refugees.

"Ms. Sgro needs to make amends," he said. Sgro has since refused to comment.

* * *

For all its recent profile, harbouring refugees in sanctuary is actually rare in the United Church -- just 13 cases since 1989. Most have been resolved with little or no publicity.

That's partly because sanctuary is difficult enough without the glare of publicity. For refugees at risk, entering sanctuary is "like going into a state of suspended animation," said Moderator Rt. Rev. Peter Short at the Toronto press conference. "Everything is put on hold and one's life comes to a stop. "Plans are stopped, travel is stopped. Employment is stopped. Relationships are disrupted. Children can't go to school.... The person in sanctuary waits and waits and waits for life to begin again."

A failed refugee claimant who seeks to avoid deportation by entering sanctuary in a church has broken the law. The church that offers asylum has broken it too. "If the authorities should decide to press charges, the congregation must be prepared for the consequences," a sanctuary handbook prepared by the United Church states bluntly. That can mean up to two years in jail, a fine $50,000, or both.

Congregations must also shoulder the financial, physical and emotional burdens of harbouring a refugee. Food, clothing, furniture and legal fees can amount to tens of thousands of dollars. It may take a year or two for the case to work its way through the system. Congregations must be prepared to suspend or dramatically alter their routines for the duration.

Sanctuary cases are also rare because the standards for granting sanctuary are stringent. Church guidelines insist that congregations must vet an asylum-seeker thoroughly -- drawing on the person's own records and story, as well as on organizations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International -- before agreeing to an offer of sanctuary. "Not all failed claims warrant sanctuary," states the handbook, "nor would they benefit from it."

"We've said clearly to the government that sanctuary is a last resort," says Sinclair. "The church wouldn't be involved in it if all other avenues hadn't been exhausted."

The United Church speaks with some authority on refugee issues, sanctuary included. Officials estimate that the church has helped settle more than 25,000 refugees in the last 25 years. More than one-third of the congregations in the denomination have been involved in settling or advocating on behalf of refugees arriving in waves from Vietnam in the 1970s, Central America in the 1980s, Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, as well as in smaller numbers from virtually every trouble-spot on the planet. The church maintains close ties with global partner-churches and non-government organizations. Refugee staffpersons have professional knowledge of the immigration system, while overseas staff bring back firsthand assessments from refugee-producing regions.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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