Mary Jo Leddy

Refugee advocates threaten more sanctuary cases in response to new legislation

  • December 6, 2012

TORONTO - As the federal government implements tough new rules for refugees starting Dec. 15 there will be a corresponding increase in cases of refugees seeking and finding sanctuary in churches and other houses of worship, Romero House co-founder Mary Jo Leddy told a meeting of about 300 refugee activists in Toronto Nov. 29.

Leddy and other refugee advocates have been preparing for an increase in sanctuary cases after Bill C-31 is in place.

“We are shamelessly promoting sanctuary wherever we can,” said Leddy. “We must do this for our country.”

The Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, generally known as Bill C-31, will cut processing times for certain classes of refugees, especially those who originate from a still-to-be-announced list of designated countries of origin. With a new set of deadlines for submitting an application and proceeding to a first hearing, processing times for in-country refugee applications will be cut from an average of 600 days to 60 days.

Sanctuary is a tradition that can be traced back to the Old Testament, where certain cities were designated for sanctuary in Israel. In Medieval Europe churches and cathedrals were often used as sanctuary by people who had run afoul of secular powers.

“It is our tradition. It is our right,” Leddy told the gathering of former refugees and Church-based activists in Holy Trinity Anglican Church. “This is a spontaneous movement of conscience.”

The archdiocese of Toronto leaves the decision whether or not parishes should provide sanctuary up to the discernment of pastors advised by their pastoral councils.

Canada Border Services Agency maintains it is illegal to harbour failed refugee claimants in churches.

“The CBSA does not condone individuals hiding in churches or other places of worship to avoid removal from Canada,” said the CBSA communications department in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “There are no places in Canada where individuals can retreat and be immune from Canadian law.”

Churches offering sanctuary to refugees are exercising their freedom of conscious on an issue of the sanctity of life, said Leddy.

“Human beings are sacred,” she said. “They are not meant to be shuffled off and shipped out of this country.”

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney claims 64 per cent of refugee claims are “not well founded.” The speeded-up process will be more fair for legitimate refugees, Kenney said.

“While our asylum system is considered very fair, it has also become in many respects dysfunctional. Which is why we ended up with backlogs of up to 60,000 claimants waiting for as long as 21 months just to get a hearing at our independent Immigration Refugee Board,” Kenny told an Ottawa press conference Nov. 30.

But justice on hyperdrive is justice denied, said former IRB director Peter Showler.

“Too many refugee claimants will not have a fair opportunity to tell their story,” Showler told the activists at Holy Trinity. “Everybody is going to be subjected to a system that is just going too fast.”

Taking traumatized refugees who speak neither English nor French through an arduous legal process that should include full psychological and physical exams, plus documenting events that have happened behind closed doors in police states, cannot be done in 60 days, said the law professor at the University of Ottawa.

“It (Bill C-31) will go to the Supreme Court. A lot of people will be in jail who shouldn’t be,” Showler said.

The new law can be challenged because it violates the rights to life, liberty and security of person (Section 7) and the right to equal treatment under the law (Section 15) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to Showler.

“This is a democracy. This is rule of law. How can it be that these kinds of punitive actions passed through our Parliament?”

Canada needs to refine its refugee system so that it doesn’t have to impose visa restrictions to try to limit refugee applications from countries such as Hungary and Mexico, Kenney said.

“If we want to have tools other than the relatively blunt instrument of visa imposition, then we need an efficient asylum system,” he said. “So this is why… this is so important to Canada’s interests and indeed to preserving our tradition of protection for refugees.”

Canadians care about more than travel and trade opportunities, said Leddy.

“We are a better country than you (Parliament) have voted for. We are people who care. We are decent and we are capable of goodness,” she said.

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