Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sanctuary is last chance for many

Churches, temples home to several adults, at least one family

KEN MEANEY, Canwest News Service

It may be cold comfort, but Abdelkader Belaouni, an Algerian refugee claimant who has been living in sanctuary in a Montreal church for over two years, is not alone.

Church basements and temples from St. John's, N.L., to Surrey, B.C. are home to six other adults and at least one family who have taken the desperate measure of seeking refuge to avoid a deportation order.

In Angela Portnoy's case, her five children have practically grown up in a church in Marystown, N.L. They've been living in the basement of Sacred Heart since October 2005, when they were ordered deported.

The tradition of places of worship as sanctuary goes back to ancient times, says Norma McCord, a United Church member in Ottawa who works with a network that assists refugee claimants.

But it can be a perilous refuge.

Four years ago, Quebec City police dragged Mohamed Cherfi, a failed refugee claimant, from a local church - the only time Canadian police have ever disregarded a church sanctuary.

In Surrey, B.C., this month, authorities had to back down after trying to remove Laibar Singh from the Sikh temple where the paralyzed refugee claimant has lived since Dec. 15.

A spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, Chris Williams, says the law does not recognize sanctuary.

"The fact a person is hiding in a place of worship to avoid removal doesn't affect his case," he said. The agency is aware of eight cases of people in sanctuary across the country.

Those who leave sanctuary lose even that slim protection. Several people have been arrested while outside - including Alexi Portnoy, Angela's husband, who was later deported.

A warrant also was issued for Angela last October, when her application to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds was turned down.

There also is no protection for those providing the haven.

In its handbook for clergy on sanctuary, the United Church notes: "Those who offer sanctuary must realize ... assisting a refugee in that act of avoiding removal is breaking the law." Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees says people whose refugee claims have been turned down have three avenues: an appeal to the federal court, which hears only one of 10 cases put before it; an appeal on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, which doesn't stay the deportation; and a risk assessment before the actual removal is carried out.

Alexi Kolosovs's appeal of his deportation order will be heard by the federal court in Toronto on Feb. 4.

Kolosovs argues he should be allowed to stay in Canada because of his unique skills as a netmaker, the impact on his grandchildren - who live an hour away - of losing him, and the fact he'll be sent back to Latvia, where he has no family and cannot speak the language. He also says the Immigration Department took too long - seven years - to decide to deport him.

Dench says while very few appeals are successful, people who seek sanctuary are often allowed to stay in Canada.

"It reflects the fact that many times a church, before they will decide to offer sanctuary, they will look very closely into the case. They don't offer sanctuary because somebody asks for it, they do it because they look at it and say this is a very, very compelling case. Presumably, that is part of the reason why, when the immigration officer or the minister looks at it, they see the same argument."