three women behind bars holding sign
Canada's new refugee law, Bill C-31, shortens the time refugees have to collect documents (Photo: Courtesy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association)

Topics: Justice | Human Rights

Reforms to refugee laws may leave some unable to remain in Canada

Some wrongly rejected refugees to Canada will look for sanctuary in churches, say advocates


Belo Hilary vividly remembers the night of March 7, 2010, when he survived a massacre in the village of Dogo Nahawa, Nigeria, that left more than 200 people dead. He recalls grabbing the hand of an attacker and diverting a knife aimed at his neck, only to have it strike his side — the scars on his left ribs are still visible. “I was supposed to be killed,” he says. 

The attack spurred Hilary to leave Nigeria, but his journey to Canada actually started in 2009 when his landlord reported him to the police for sodomy (illegal in Nigeria) after entering Hilary’s portion of the house without permission and catching him with a man.

Dogo Nahawa had been his hiding place until the night of the massacre. He then travelled through Africa, South America and the United States before seeking refugee status in Canada. “I’m just looking for anywhere that will accept me,” he said from behind the glass of a visitor’s booth at Headingley Correctional Centre in Manitoba. 

Hilary has been in jail since he walked across the border in June, was picked up by the RCMP and turned over to Citizenship and Immigration. He was put behind bars because he has no government identification; this same lack of ID led the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to reject his refugee claim. According to Hilary’s lawyer, Bashir Khan, if Hilary’s case had been processed under Canada’s old refugee law, he might have been accepted. 

In December 2012, a new refugee law, known as Bill C-31, was implemented in Canada, shortening the time refugees have to collect documents and prepare their claims. Hilary, for example, had his case heard less than three months after arriving, when many of Khan’s old clients had hearings after 19 months. 

From behind bars, Hilary managed to get a copy of the police report his landlord filed sent from Nigeria, but not any identification. The Immigration and Refugee Board panel said Hilary’s claim was not credible because he has no ID and the police report was a photocopy. “If he had even six months, he would have probably had all those documents in which to prove his case,” says Khan, who has filed an appeal to the decision.

Cases like Hilary’s are what worry the Canadian Sanctuary Network, a Toronto-based affiliation of refugee workers, advocates, lawyers and churches that seek to provide protection for refugees they believe to be wrongfully rejected by the system. One of the network’s founders says the new law leaves more refugees at risk of being deported to dangerous situations. For “people who arrive on our shore hoping for refuge in Canada, the chances that they’ll be rejected wrongly have just gone way, way up,” Michael Creal observed during a 2012 forum at Toronto’s Danforth Mennonite Church. 

While Bill C-31 made many amendments to Canadian refugee law, refugee advocates point to three changes they fear will drive up the number of sanctuary requests. First, the timelines: under the new law, all refugee hearings are to take place within 60 days of arrival. But applicants from countries on a new “designated countries of origin” list — primarily democracies with good human rights records — have even less time; their hearings will occur between 30 and 45 days after arrival. 

Second, while the bill established a new appeal division for rejected claimants, those from the designated countries of origin list cannot use it. 

Third, there is a one-year ban on all refugee claimants in applying for a pre-removal risk assessment, a process used to prevent deporting people to countries where they would face danger or persecution. Applicants from designated countries must wait three years to apply. 

While Khan would recommend other legal options before sanctuary, he says the changes in timelines and appeal options could increase the number of people taking refuge in churches. “Maybe people will turn to sanctuary more because there are now fewer procedural safeguards for those who are able to come up with new evidence or evidence that they always could come up with but didn’t have enough time to supply.”

The government says the shorter timelines will provide better service. “People in genuine need of protection waited about 19 months for a protection decision — this was unfair,” Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Remi Lariviere wrote in an e-mail. “Faster processing means faster decisions on asylum claims which results in faster protection for refugees combined with faster removals for failed claimants.”

But Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says that many vulnerable claimants don’t have the documents and can’t get them sent in time. “I’m talking about women who have suffered gender persecution. I’m talking people who are coming looking for protection because of their sexual orientation. I’m talking about youth,” she says. “They don’t know what to bring as evidence.” 

After Bill C-31 passed in June 2012, the sanctuary network worried more people would need sanctuary and started to recruit churches willing to provide it. “We’re very anxious to try to find congregations that are open to the possibility of offering sanctuary,” Creal said at the 2012 forum.

It’s difficult to know whether those fears were warranted. Though Creal says the number of people seeking sanctuary was roughly the same in 2012 and 2013, the overall number of refugee claimants has dropped significantly. In the first two quarters of 2012, 11,165 claims were made; for the same period in 2013, there were 4,767 claims — a decrease of 57 percent. 

Creal suspects the decrease has several causes but is mainly a result of Bill C-31. When claimants with complicated cases, or who are coming from designated countries, hear that their chances of acceptance have gone down, they may choose not to come at all. Last January, in fact, the Canadian government erected billboards in Hungary, once the largest source of refugees to Canada, warning about the faster processing and deportation times.

However, alongside the drop in applicants, there was an increase in the acceptance rate between January and June 2013, which may show that Bill C-31 will actually reduce the number of sanctuary cases. Explanations for the bump vary.

David Matas, a Winnipeg refugee lawyer, says in some cases, decision-makers may be more willing to overlook missing documents. The acceleration in hearing times “seems to have increased the likelihood of acceptance, because the board realizes [applicants] can’t produce the kind of support for the claim that they might otherwise be able to with a more leisurely schedule,” Matas says. He adds, however, that some board members may keep the same high standards and reject cases more often. 

Creal believes the increase is a blip — temporary and artificial. With fewer refugees arriving, especially from designated countries, the numbers appear positive. He also believes that new IRB members approve more claims than those who’ve done the job for years. “After a while, they begin to get cynical and say, ‘Gee, I’ve heard this story before,’” he says. All current board members in the refugee protection division were hired after Bill C-31 passed, though some were judges in the old system and rehired under the new process. Creal believes that with time, the number of rejected cases will go back up. Late last year, the sanctuary network was still working to find more churches open to receiving refugees. 

Khwaka Kukubo, refugee program adviser for The United Church of Canada, shares some of Creal’s concerns about the new legislation. “Bill C-31 created a two-tier system for the protection of refugees. This has led to a lack of a fair process,” she wrote in an e-mail. Both United Church Moderator Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson and former Moderator Very Rev. Lois Wilson are signatories on an op-ed piece published in the Toronto Star in December calling on the federal government to “be fair to refugees . . . and open doors that have been closed.”

Rev. Rosemarie Lambie, executive secretary of the Montreal and Ottawa Conference, has helped several congregations through sanctuary cases. She says when approached with a request, congregations need to consider the financial and practical aspects, as well as the mental strain for both churches and refugees. “When a family decides to hide in a church, there is no end that you know of, and they’re really stuck in the church,” she says. She saw one case at St. Andrew’s-Norwood United in Montreal where a family lived inside the church for more than 560 days. At Vancouver’s First United, Iraq war resister Rodney Watson has been in sanctuary since Sept. 18, 2009.

Despite the challenges, Lambie is not against congregations providing sanctuary if the need arises and it truly is a last resort. “We will always encourage congregations to do the right thing. The question will be what is the right thing, and it has to be a case-by-case situation.”


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s January 2014 issue with the title “Back in harm’s way.”


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