Campaign launched to aid and abet refugees

By 
  • December 3, 2007

{mosimage}OTTAWA - Refugee rights advocates launched a campaign Nov. 29 to ensure that humanitarian workers do not get charged with laws aimed at human traffickers.

“I am proud to aid and abet refugees,” said refugee advocates from charities and NGOs from across Canada. They stood, one by one. Then nearly all of the more than 300 delegates to the The Canadian Council for Refugees fall consultation in Ottawa were standing.

Among the keynote speakers was Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, an American who was arrested and charged last September for violating Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act when she helped 12 Haitians cross the border into Quebec. Though charges were later dropped, Hinshaw-Thomas spent 36 hours in detention, and a chill moved through the refugee advocacy community on both sides of the border. The Haitians were eventually able to make their refugee claims.

“I thought as a humanitarian worker I would be protected,” the 65-year old grandmother and director of Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees told the conference.

Francisco Rico-Martinez of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto, told the gathering that 80 per cent of the work he does could bring him in violation of the law. He gets phone calls from people who want to flee to Canada. He advises them to use Mapquest or Google to check for places where the border is not well-guarded. When they arrive in Canada, they come to his office or his home. He advises them on how to apply for refugee status.

“I am going to violate every single law on Earth to stop torture or to protect the life of someone,” Rico-Martinez said. He said people fleeing persecution often have to use false documents and other means outside the law.

When the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was being debated in 2001, government officials gave assurances that the law targeted only human smugglers and traffickers and not humanitarian workers.

Rico-Martinez, a Catholic whose FCJ Refugee Centre was started by the Faithful Companions of Jesus, an order of Catholic nuns, said his organization bases its work on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

“We do this because of our belief of welcoming the stranger.”

The refugee advocates want the law changed so that it clearly targets those who engage in trafficking or smuggling humans for material gain. It also wants to have every warrant for an arrest under this law signed by the attorney general.

Rico-Martinez said he has reported instances of people not authorized to be consultants charging vulnerable refugees money. He also reported people in Mexico who were selling narratives to people to help them make a refugee claim. In those instances the authorities did nothing, he said.

“It’s easy to try to make an example with a humanitarian worker,” he said.

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