Thursday, September 27, 2007

Refugee advocate arrested at Lacolle border crossing

IRWIN BLOCK, The Gazette

A prominent U.S. refugee advocate has been arrested by Canadian authorities as she was helping 12 Haitians seeking asylum in Canada.

Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, a director of Pennsylvania based Prime - Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees, was taken into custody around noon yesterday at the St. Bernard de Lacolle border crossing.

According to her Montreal lawyer, this is the first time in Canada a section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of June 2002 has been invoked against a human rights worker.

Section 117 makes it a crime to "organize, induce, aid or abet" the entry into Canada of persons who do not have a visa or passport.

There are no exceptions in the law for church-based or other human rights personnel, Erik Paradis, a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, said yesterday.

Montreal lawyer Mitchell Goldberg, who is acting for Hinshaw-Thomas, said he knows of no other cases when "someone acting for humanitarian motives has been arrested" under the act.

"It was designed to deter smugglers and people who are trafficking, not people who are saving lives.

"Numerous organizations based in the U.S. and Canada have been bringing refugees to the border in co-operation with the border services agency - even given the power to schedule appointments with them."

Hinshaw-Thomas had warned the agency she was arriving with seven children and five adults, he added.

Goldberg likened her arrest to detaining Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who issued visas to thousands of Jews in Hungary in 1944, saving them from death camps.

"She's a hero - I don't think the Canadian people want us to prosecute people who are saving lives," he said.

Goldberg said the 12 Haitians will not be directed back to the U.S., but as of last night had not yet been admitted to Canada.

Haiti is among eight countries that are temporarily exempt from the safe third country agreement, allowing them to seek refugee status in Canada when they enter from the U.S.

If charged, Hinshaw-Thomas faces fines of up to $1 million or life in prison.