Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 20, 2003
Churches debate sanctuary
Federal government's refugee process frustrates clerics
By ART BABYCH
Canadian Catholic News
Canadian churches are protecting refugee claimants by giving them sanctuary because the federal government's refugee determination process is unfair, says the Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition.
"Churches who open their doors to provide sanctuary are defying this unjust policy," said Rev. Darryl Gray of Union United Church in Montreal. "Moral institutions cannot obey laws that are unjust and religious leaders are prepared to accept the penalty for this civil initiative that is the sanctuary movement."
Gray, plus other representatives of the coalition, including Archbishop Roger Ebacher, head of the Archdiocese of Gatineau-Hull, told reporters at a recent news conference on Parliament Hill that the "phenomenon" of sanctuary has emerged because of flaws to the refugee determination system.
Seven refugee families have found sanctuary in churches in recent months - "an unprecedented phenomenon," the coalition said. Five remain in sanctuary.
"It's not us who are just flinging the doors of the church open, it is the government that is forcing people into sanctuary," said Gray. "It is the government that has created the sanctuary movement, the government that has sustained it and the government that can end it."
A main flaw in the refugee determination system is the lack of an appeal process, said the group. Immigration Minister Denis Coderre told the House of Commons almost a year-and-a-half ago that he had "already made a commitment to the Canadian Council for Refugees that we will have an appeal system in place in one year's time."
In the past, two members of the Immigration and Refugee Board would hear each claim for refugee status if at least one member decided the claimant was a refugee. But since June of 2002, only one board member makes the decision.
"It's very important that we have a system that can better protect claimants because it can be a question of life or death for those refugees," said Ebacher, in a CCN interview later. "In most countries there is an appeal process," he said. "It's abnormal that there's no appeal in Canada."
The decision to provide sanctuary in a church is a difficult one because "it's against the law," Ebacher said. But those that open their doors are listening to their consciences, he said. "They look at the situation and they discern that there is a real danger" if the claimants are returned to their homeland.
The Rev. Rosemary Lambie-Bromby of the Montreal Presbytery of the United Church of Canada said the churches protect refugee claimants because no one else will. "People arrive at our doors desperate, crying with stories of pain and torture and with evidence that they have been mistreated in their countries," she said. "How can we send them back to countries where there is no justice, there is no peace, where there are guerillas trashing whoever they want, where there are women's lives destroyed by political systems, where there is no control?"
In the House of Commons, the immigration minister repeated what has become a stock answer to queries about the protection of sanctuary refugees. "Mr. Speaker, I do not negotiate in churches or with churches," he said in response to a question from Bloc Quebecois MP Serge Cardin.
The MP had noted that a refugee family has spent more than three months in a church in North Hatley, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, under threat of expulsion. "This family is desperate for a fair and equitable review of its case," he said. "What is the minister of citizenship and Immigration waiting for before he complies with the act and sets up an appeal tribunal for refugees?"
Coderre charged Cardin was engaging in "petty politics" and said he ought to understand "we on this side of the floor do not condone civil disobedience."