Immigration Minister Tells Churches To Stop Harbouring Refugee Claimants

CJAD 800 (Montreal), Jul. 25

OTTAWA (CP)—Immigration Minister Judy Sgro wants Canadian churches to abandon the time-honoured practice of providing sanctuary to people under the threat of deportation.

In the wake of several thorny cases, a plainly frustrated Sgro plans to meet church leaders soon to urge them not to harbour newcomers fighting for refugee status.

“It’s a very difficult issue to deal with and, frankly, if we start using the churches as the back door to enter Canada, we’re going to have huge problems,” Sgro said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“The protection of our country and of Canadians has to be the No. 1 concern. And people shouldn’t be allowed to hide anywhere.”

About half a dozen individuals, most of them failed refugee claimants, are currently being sheltered in churches across the country.

The tradition dates from at least the Middle Ages, when European churches afforded sanctuary to the persecuted.

Rev. Chris Ferguson, a spokesman on justice issues for the United Church of Canada, welcomed Sgro’s willingness to discuss the issue, noting he had sought a meeting with the minister months ago.

Ferguson insisted, however, that granting haven to people facing deportation is sometimes necessary because the federal system for determining refugee status is seriously flawed.

“Our point is, the only time a church will ever put itself in the awkward place of offering sanctuary to someone who requests it is because we understand that Canada is breaking the law, that Canada is not living up to its international obligations.”

Refugee advocates and clergy were alarmed four months ago when 10 police officers in Quebec City stormed Eglise Unie St. Pierre and took away 35-year-old Mohamed Cherfi, who had taken refuge in the church basement.

Cherfi, who faced deportation to his homeland of Algeria, was arrested for allegedly violating bail conditions imposed following his participation in a demonstration. He was then promptly turned over to immigration officials.

Sgro sees similar episodes playing out as long as churches continue to take in people wanted by the authorities.

“Nobody is exempt from the law, no matter where you are,” she said. “And that’s the basic rule of thumb, period. Sooner or later, the day will come where someone will remove you.

“I don’t like it, but it’s the reality, which is why I’m reaching out to the churches and meeting with them, so we that won’t end up with situations like that.”

A time and place for the meeting have not been set.

Sgro plans to tell church leaders to come to her directly with troublesome immigration and refugee cases.

“If they’ve got a case that’s of concern to them, it would be far better for them to approach me as the minister, and I’d be more than glad to look at the case.”

Ferguson said Sgro’s suggestion that better communication will solve the problem overlooks the fact the refugee determination system is broken.

He noted cases are heard by a single adjudicator, and there is no merit-based appeal process—just an opportunity to contest a decision in the Federal Court of Canada, which essentially looks at whether the adjudicator followed the relevant rules.

Sgro said that, while remodelling the refugee system is a priority, she will “continue to be open-minded when it comes to individual cases” in which someone may have fallen through the cracks.

“One of the things that I’m very truly trying to do is ensure that we’ve got compassion and common sense in our immigration policies and our immigration practices.”

Quebec Reverend Says He Won’t Stop Sheltering Refugees

cnews (Can.), Jul. 27

MONTREAL (CP)—An outspoken clergyman says he’ll continue to offer sanctuary to deportees despite a request by the federal immigration minister to halt the practice.

Rev. Darryl Gray of the Union United Church accused minister Judy Sgro of dictating church policy by telling religious groups to stop offering sanctuary to refugees facing deportation. In an interview published on Sunday by The Canadian Press, Sgro accused some refugees of “using the churches as the back door” into Canada.

But Gray, who has harboured a number of deportees in his Montreal church, said Monday the practice of granting sanctuary to people in need is backed by the Bible. He added he won’t allow the government to dictate his interpretation of scripture.

“I think it’s inappropriate for a government minister to even speak to destroying what has been put in place by ancient scriptures,” said Gray.

In the wake of several thorny cases, Sgro said she plans to meet church leaders soon to urge them not to harbour newcomers fighting for refugee status.

“Frankly, if we start using the churches as the back door to enter Canada, we’re going to have huge problems,” she said in the interview.

“The protection of our country and of Canadians has to be the No. 1 concern. And people shouldn’t be allowed to hide anywhere.”

About half a dozen individuals, most of them failed refugee claimants, are currently being sheltered in churches across the country.

The tradition dates from at least the Middle Ages, when European churches afforded sanctuary to the persecuted.

Critics of the Canadian refugee process say the system is wrought with problems.

They note that cases are heard by a single adjudicator, and while complainants can appeal to the Federal Court of Canada, the court only looks at whether the adjudicator followed the relevant rules.

Rev. Gray suggested Sgro fix the problems in the refugee system rather than criticize churches.

“The immigration minister is hiding behind the mask of national security in order to perpetuate a discriminatory, a biased and a flawed immigration determination system.”

Gray has sheltered Ethiopians, Algerians and Zimbabweans over the last two years while pushing for more protections to guard against human error in the refugee process.

He says he has fielded almost weekly requests for sanctuary in recent years, all involving refugees. He turns most people away, however, because they are often economic refugees who can’t prove they face physical danger.

Gray said he will continue to offer sanctuary to those who ask for it.

“If we feel that we have to give sanctuary to an individual or families, we will continue to do that in order to protect human life.”

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