Canadian refugee workers won’t bow to threats

By 
  • January 24, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Jesuit Father Jack Costello isn’t the sort to yell “Come and get me, Copper” a la James Cagney. At the same time, he isn’t about to quit aiding and abetting refugees who want to come into Canada.

“We are all aiding and abetting, which is of course what we would normally do if someone’s life is at risk or if they believe their life is at risk,” said Costello. “This is supposed to be a normal thing. It’s now being treated as abnormal.”

Costello, a veteran refugee rights activist, is outraged that the Canadian Border Services Agency has again signalled its willingness to jail religious and humanitarian refugee workers on charges of people smuggling. After initially arresting then dropping charges against Pennsylvanian Mennonite refugee advocate Janet Hinshaw-Thomas in November, CBSA has now warned Margaret de Rivera, a Quaker from Maine, that she will be charged with aiding and abetting illegal entry into Canada if she brings any more refugees to the New Brunswick border.

The Quakers were once an integral link in the underground railway which transported escaped slaves to Canada. The Society of Friends continues that tradition by working with refugees in the United States.

The CBSA claims there is no special protection for religious and humanitarian workers in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

“The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act makes no distinction between individuals,” said CBSA spokeswoman Jennifer Morrison.

 A requirement that the CBSA receive permission from the Attorney General of Canada before laying people smuggling charges under section 117 of the act does not mean that the CBSA won’t charge religious and humanitarian workers, said a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

“Ensuring compliance with our laws is the cornerstone of managing our borders. It is vital to the integrity of the immigration system and those who come to the country lawfully that our laws be respected,” Melisa Leclerc wrote. Section 117 “applies to anyone who commits this offence.”

A half-dozen former cabinet ministers who once administered and revised Canada’s immigration and refugee laws claim section 117 was never intended to be used against religious and humanitarian workers. Six former Liberal and Conservative ministers of justice and of immigration wrote to Day Nov. 6 to complain about the CBSA laying charges against Hinshaw-Thomas.

“There is a crucial distinction between the criminal organizations that derive enormous profits from smuggling human beings across borders illegally and the numerous refugee assistance organizations and dedicated individuals who assist those fleeing persecution and torture to seek protection from Canada,” said the letter, signed by former Conservative cabinet ministers Joe Clark and Flora MacDonald along with Liberals Lloyd Axworthy, Elinor Caplan, Irwin Cotler and Allan Rock.

Liberal MP Marlene Jennings is calling for the law to be rewritten to explicitly exclude humanitarian workers and agencies from smuggling and human trafficking charges.

“You have to wonder just what the Justice Minister’s directive is when it comes to Good Samaritans,” said Jennings in a Jan. 22 press release.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which acts on behalf of the Attorney General in granting consent to the CBSA to lay charges, says there is no political directive from the government to get tough on humanitarian and religious refugee advocates. But NDP Public Safety critic Joe Comartin doubts that CBSA would suddenly start laying charges against religious and humanitarian refugee workers without some sort of signal from the politicians in charge.

Comartin also warns that churches which provide sanctuary to refugees will be targeted by the CBSA. The government is also threatening lawyers and church agencies within Canada who provide advice to potential refugee claimants over the phone, he said.

“There’s no question that there’s a chill going on,” said Comartin, MP for Windsor-Tesumseh.

Day’s office says there is no reason to respect churches as a place of sanctuary.

“The Government of Canada does not condone individuals hiding in churches. Individuals who have exhausted all avenues are expected to respect our laws and leave the country,” wrote Leclerc.

The Canadian Council for Refugees has begun distributing “Proud to Aid and Abet” buttons and campaigning to have the law changed.

“If it is a crime to assist refugees, then we’re undermining the support for refugees. It means that Canada is turning an action that responds to our obligations to our fellow human beings into a crime,” said Canadian Council for Refugees executive director Janet Dench.

Costello believes he knows the difference between a crime and humanitarian assistance.

“We will not back down.”

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