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Back in harm's way

Refugee advocates say new laws could increase deportations — and cause a spike in claimants seeking church sanctuary

By Emily Loewen

Belo Hilary vividly remembers the night of March 7, 2010, when he survived a massacre in the village of Dogo Nahawa, Nigeria, that left more than 200 people dead. He recalls grabbing the hand of an attacker and diverting a knife aimed at his neck, only to have it strike his side — the scars on his left ribs are still visible. “I was supposed to be killed,” he says.

The attack spurred Hilary to leave Nigeria, but his journey to Canada actually started in 2009 when his landlord reported him to the police for sodomy (illegal in Nigeria) after entering Hilary’s portion of the house without permission and catching him with a man.

Dogo Nahawa had been his hiding place until the night of the massacre. He then travelled through Africa, South America and the United States before seeking refugee status in Canada. “I’m just looking for anywhere that will accept me,” he said from behind the glass of a visitor’s booth at Headingley Correctional Centre in Manitoba.

Hilary has been in jail since he walked across the border in June, was picked up by the RCMP and turned over to Citizenship and Immigration. He was put behind bars because he has no government identification; this same lack of ID led the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to reject his refugee claim. According to Hilary’s lawyer, Bashir Khan, if Hilary’s case had been processed under Canada’s old refugee law, he might have been accepted.

In December 2012, a new refugee law, known as Bill C-31, was implemented in Canada, shortening the time refugees have to collect documents and prepare their claims. Hilary, for example, had his case heard less than three months after arriving, when many of Khan’s old clients had hearings after 19 months.

From behind bars, Hilary managed to get a copy of the police report his landlord filed sent from Nigeria, but not any identification. The Immigration and Refugee Board panel said Hilary’s claim was not credible because he has no ID and the police report was a photocopy. “If he had even six months, he would have probably had all those documents in which to prove his case,” says Khan, who has filed an appeal to the decision.

Cases like Hilary’s are what worry the Canadian Sanctuary Network, a Toronto-based affiliation of refugee workers, advocates, lawyers and churches that seek to provide protection for refugees they believe to be wrongfully rejected by the system. One of the network’s founders says the new law leaves more refugees at risk of being deported to dangerous situations. For “people who arrive on our shore hoping for refuge in Canada, the chances that they’ll be rejected wrongly have just gone way, way up,” Michael Creal observed during a 2012 forum at Toronto’s Danforth Mennonite Church.

While Bill C-31 made many amendments to Canadian refugee law, refugee advocates point to three changes they fear will drive up the number of sanctuary requests. First, the timelines: under the new law, all refugee hearings are to take place within 60 days of arrival. But applicants from countries on a new “designated countries of origin” list — primarily democracies with good human rights records — have even less time; their hearings will occur between 30 and 45 days after arrival.

Second, while the bill established a new appeal division for rejected claimants, those from the designated countries of origin list cannot use it.

Third, there is a one-year ban on all refugee claimants in applying for a pre-removal risk assessment, a process used to prevent deporting people to countries where they would face danger or persecution. Applicants from designated countries must wait three years to apply.

While Khan would recommend other legal options before sanctuary, he says the changes in timelines and appeal options could increase the number of people taking refuge in churches. “Maybe people will turn to sanctuary more because there are now fewer procedural safeguards for those who are able to come up with new evidence or evidence that they always could come up with but didn’t have enough time to supply.”

The government says the shorter timelines will provide better service. “People in genuine need of protection waited about 19 months for a protection decision — this was unfair,” Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Remi Lariviere wrote in an e-mail. “Faster processing means faster decisions on asylum claims which results in faster protection for refugees combined with faster removals for failed claimants.”

But Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says that many vulnerable claimants don’t have the documents and can’t get them sent in time. “I’m talking about women who have suffered gender persecution. I’m talking people who are coming looking for protection because of their sexual orientation. I’m talking about youth,” she says. “They don’t know what to bring as evidence.”

After Bill C-31 passed in June 2012, the sanctuary network worried more people would need sanctuary and started to recruit churches willing to provide it. “We’re very anxious to try to find congregations that are open to the possibility of offering sanctuary,” Creal said at the 2012 forum.

It’s difficult to know whether those fears were warranted. Though Creal says the number of people seeking sanctuary was roughly the same in 2012 and 2013, the overall number of refugee claimants has dropped significantly. In the first two quarters of 2012, 11,165 claims were made; for the same period in 2013, there were 4,767 claims — a decrease of 57 percent.

Creal suspects the decrease has several causes but is mainly a result of Bill C-31. When claimants with complicated cases, or who are coming from designated countries, hear that their chances of acceptance have gone down, they may choose not to come at all. Last January, in fact, the Canadian government erected billboards in Hungary, once the largest source of refugees to Canada, warning about the faster processing and deportation times.

However, alongside the drop in applicants, there was an increase in the acceptance rate between January and June 2013, which may show that Bill C-31 will actually reduce the number of sanctuary cases. Explanations for the bump vary.

David Matas, a Winnipeg refugee lawyer, says in some cases, decision-makers may be more willing to overlook missing documents. The acceleration in hearing times “seems to have increased the likelihood of acceptance, because the board realizes [applicants] can’t produce the kind of support for the claim that they might otherwise be able to with a more leisurely schedule,” Matas says. He adds, however, that some board members may keep the same high standards and reject cases more often.  

Creal believes the increase is a blip — temporary and artificial. With fewer refugees arriving, especially from designated countries, the numbers appear positive. He also believes that new IRB members approve more claims than those who’ve done the job for years. “After a while, they begin to get cynical and say, ‘Gee, I’ve heard this story before,’” he says. All current board members in the refugee protection division were hired after Bill C-31 passed, though some were judges in the old system and rehired under the new process. Creal believes that with time, the number of rejected cases will go back up. Late last year, the sanctuary network was still working to find more churches open to receiving refugees.

Khwaka Kukubo, refugee program adviser for The United Church of Canada, shares some of Creal’s concerns about the new legislation. “Bill C-31 created a two-tier system for the protection of refugees. This has led to a lack of a fair process,” she wrote in an e-mail. Both United Church Moderator Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson and former Moderator Very Rev. Lois Wilson are signatories on an op-ed piece published in the Toronto Star in December calling on the federal government to “be fair to refugees . . . and open doors that have been closed.”

Rev. Rosemarie Lambie, executive secretary of the Montreal and Ottawa Conference, has helped several congregations through sanctuary cases. She says when approached with a request, congregations need to consider the financial and practical aspects, as well as the mental strain for both churches and refugees. “When a family decides to hide in a church, there is no end that you know of, and they’re really stuck in the church,” she says. She saw one case at St. Andrew’s-Norwood United in Montreal where a family lived inside the church for more than 560 days. At Vancouver’s First United, Iraq war resister Rodney Watson has been in sanctuary since Sept. 18, 2009.

Despite the challenges, Lambie is not against congregations providing sanctuary if the need arises and it truly is a last resort. “We will always encourage congregations to do the right thing. The question will be what is the right thing, and it has to be a case-by-case situation.”

Emily Loewen is a writer and editor in Winnipeg.

Faced with deportation, two Nigerian students took refuge in Regina churches
By Raquel Fletcher

Victoria Ordu heaved a sigh so deep it sounded as if she was gasping for breath. She closed her eyes to regain her composure, perhaps to keep from crying. “It’s not easy being here,” she finally managed. Sitting next to her, Ihuoma “Favour” Amadi was calmer, but it was obvious that she was equally drained: “It’s been a very terrible experience.”

At the time of our interview last June, the women had already spent over a year in hiding, moving between four Regina churches to avoid deportation. “Initially, we thought after a few months, or a few weeks in . . . that it would be resolved,” Ordu said. Eventually, the fear of being discovered was too much. In October, they packed their bags and returned to Nigeria.

Ordu and Amadi didn’t know each other when they first came to Canada in 2009, but both were recipients of a prestigious scholarship paid for by the Nigerian government to study at the University of Regina — Ordu in theatre arts and Amadi in international relations. Amadi said the day she received the call from the scholarship board “was the happiest moment of my life.”

In summer 2011, both young women made a critical mistake: they began working at Walmart. It seems benign, but the social insurance numbers provided to them with their study permits didn’t allow them to work off-campus. When Ordu realized that she didn’t have the proper visa, she quit immediately. Amadi, on the other hand, was arrested in the store that August and escorted out in handcuffs.

The government issued removal orders to both young women in November 2011. After their appeal hearings failed, they claimed sanctuary on June 19, 2012. Unlike many sanctuary claimants whose deportation to their home country could result in harsh consequences or even death, the students’ fight to stay in Canada was about their determination to complete their education.

For more than 16 months, they studied their textbooks, exercised and watched movies on their laptops. Although they lived in church basements, they did not attend Sunday service. “You don’t know who is out there; you don’t know who is coming to the church and will see you there,” explained Amadi. Instead, they listened to the choir singing above them — at times they could make out part of the sermon.

“When you look at what they did and the punishment, they are not comparable,” says Kay Adebogun, a Regina-based immigration counsellor who continues to advise the women on a pro bono basis. “They have no prior problem with the law . . . no criminal record, no immigration violation.”

Perhaps ironically, 13 months after issuing the removal order, the federal government proposed changes to the International Student Program that would allow foreign students to work part time off-campus. Despite efforts to have the women’s case reconsidered under the proposed rules, the government did not reverse its deportation order.

Support for Amadi and Ordu has been wide-ranging. The president of the University of Regina, Vianne Timmons, encouraged federal ministers to let the women stay for compassionate reasons. Nearly a dozen university and community rallies were held between October 2012 and the students’ departure. Local MLAs and MPs, as well as federal party leaders, including Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, met with Amadi and Ordu and spoke out against the deportation order. Given the community support, Adebogun says he’s hopeful the students will be allowed to reapply and return to the university.

“For young women from Nigeria, [a university education] will change their lives,” says Timmons. “I feel very passionate about the fact that I would like to see them get their education, and I would like to see them get their education here at the University of Regina.”

Back in June, it was clear Amadi would give anything to complete her degree. “We’ve been here three years in Canada. To have to go back with nothing to show for it is really shameful.”

Raquel Fletcher is a journalist in Regina.

After four years in church sanctuary, war resister Rodney Watson wonders what’s next
By Pieta Woolley

“Bright white” is putting it mildly. The leather Nike sneakers Rodney Watson wears in his room at Vancouver’s First United are so white, they practically have a halo. Even the soles are white. The laces are pristine.

They’re three years old, these shoes, and Watson hasn’t walked freely outside in four. Instead, the former U.S. infantryman wears his brilliant runners jogging around the church, working out on his weight bench, blogging, playing Hot Wheels with his four-year-old son, Jordan, and yakking with journalists on the phone. If he leaves the church, he’ll get nabbed by border services officials and deported to face desertion charges at a military court in Texas.

“I love Canada and I love the U.S., but something is changing on both sides of the border, and it’s vicious,” he says, sitting in his room overlooking a garbage-strewn parking lot next to Chinatown. “But I know one thing. God is great. I’m hoping God comes through once again.”

Nearly a decade ago, Watson volunteered to join the U.S. army to serve in the Iraq war. At the time, he believed in the war. But after his first tour of duty in 2005, he was so horrified by the senseless killing he’d witnessed that he escaped to Canada to avoid being sent back.

In North Vancouver, he found work installing hardwood floors. He fell in love, got married and settled into a normal, happy life in Canada. The couple had a son. Weeks later, on Sept. 11, 2009, he received a letter of deportation. Knowing what he faced at home in the United States — at least a year in military prison — and terrified at the thought of leaving his wife and child, he begged the church for sanctuary. On Sept. 18, he moved in.

Living in the church offers Watson the space and time to convince Canada he’s a legitimate refugee. For the outreach mission of First United — which provides shelter, advocacy and three meals a day to hundreds of Vancouver’s homeless — offering Watson sanctuary isn’t onerous. A one-room apartment above the industrial kitchen is his, plus he has his own bathroom. It wasn’t being used for other purposes before he arrived.

After four years, though, both he and the church administration are wondering how to move the appeal process along.

In 2012, First United’s executive director Stephen Gray approached B.C. Conference and General Council, asking for The United Church of Canada’s help in advocating for Watson’s refugee claim. Gray says he didn’t receive a definitive response, but plans to ask again. He isn’t convinced that most of the wider church knows about Watson’s claim or the story of Canada’s warrant against him.

“It’s just really a question of, is there an effective intervention that the church can make to get Rodney legal status in Canada?” Gray says in a phone interview. “Taking on someone with a refugee claim is not something that congregations should do lightly. You have to make sure you have the resources in place to support the person in the long haul. We don’t fully appreciate the toll it takes on a person to be in sanctuary: spiritual, physical, emotional.”

Gray points out that the situation for First United — an outreach mission — is significantly different than a typical church inviting in a claimant. There’s no congregation to offer him support (though the War Resisters Support Campaign has been invaluable, both Gray and Watson acknowledge). However, 24 hours a day, Watson has people around him — the church’s staff and clients.

Rev. Sally McShane, First United’s minister, says she would like to be able to offer Watson more counselling, more attention. Despite what he’s endured the past four years, he’s never lost his compassion or his faith, she says. Still, she knows staying there is prison-like.

Watson admits he’s struggling, but he’s determined to remain. “I’m used to being the breadwinner — to helping other people out financially,” Watson says. “Sanctuary has humbled me a lot. Now, I have to get people to go to the store for me. Friends come and bring things. I want to be able to pay my bills and do what I’m supposed to be doing in my life. It really makes me feel like I’m less of a man.

“But I know that this is right. I want to be with my family, with my son. God, He has to smile on that. I’d urge each church to take that up. Help those being persecuted. If that’s not God’s work, I don’t know what is.”

Pieta Woolley is a journalist in Powell River, B.C.

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