Sunday, October 14, 2012
ASYLUM SEEKERS IN CANADA
BY RICK WESTHEAD/STAFF REPORTER
FROM THE TORONTO STAR THE STAR.COM
PHOTO Jozsef Pusuma, his wife Timea Daroczi, and 4-year-old daughter Viktoria, a Hungarian Roma family, are seeking asylum in Canada and hiding in a Toronto area church after the Immigration and Refugee Board denied their claim and ordered them to be deported.
PHOTO BY VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR
Refugee activists in Toronto are quietly canvassing churches across the province, seeking sanctuary for failed refugee claimants facing deportation.
Four Toronto churches have agreed to hide asylum-seekers whose refugee claims have been rejected and others say they are considering the request, the Star has learned.
MORE:Roma in Hungary feel persecuted but they have nowhere to turn
Members of the Southern Ontario Sanctuary Coalition have met with 13 churches over the past few months, as well as with representatives from Mennonite communities in Kitchener and Toronto. The group also plans to meet with local rabbis and their congregations. The coalition’s 60 members represent congregations who organized in the early 1990s after a number of Eritreans were thought to have been wrongfully deported.
Sanctuary— when a church offers someone a measure of symbolic protection from authorities — is a medieval and historic concept that is rarely offered today. It is a last resort and needs tremendous community support to succeed.
There have been four cases of sanctuary in the Toronto area over the past year, said Michael Creal, a retired York University professor and founder of the coalition. Police and border security officials have not intervened in any of them, he said.
Jozsef Pusuma, his wife Timea Daroczi and their 4-year-old daughter Viktoria are believed to be the only people currently receiving sanctuary in Toronto. The family has been hiding in an Anglican church in downtown Toronto since December after a federal court judge approved a deportation order against the Hungarian Roma family.
For five years before arriving in Toronto in September 2009, Pusuma, 41, worked as a researcher for Veronika Mohacsi, a prominent Roma and member of the European Parliament. It was a dangerous job. Pusuma frequently received death threats both over the phone and in person.
When Pusuma and his wife appeared for their Immigration and Refugee Board hearing a year and a half after their arrival in Canada, their immigration consultant tried to introduce as evidence a letter from Mohacsi that said Pusuma had worked for her. The IRB panel refused it because the letter had not been translated into English as required, according to court documents.
If he returns to Hungary, he believes he will be targeted.
The clergy of the Anglican church agreed to offer sanctuary to Pusuma and his family after reviewing his case. The Star agreed not to identify the church where the Pusumas are hiding because of their lawyer’s concerns that immigration officials would arrest and deport them.
The coalition’s effort to convince more churches to offer sanctuary sets the stage for a showdown between church groups and the federal government, and comes as the government prepares to enforce tough restrictions on refugee claimants.
“Sanctuary is a stopgap,” said Creal, 85. “We don’t want a million people living in church basements. Our end game is to have revisions to Bill C-31 to make things more fair.”
Creal said the pending refugee legislation would make a rejected asylum-seeker wait for a year before filing a humanitarian appeal. Essentially, that means he or she would be deported from Canada and, months later, file a request from overseas.
“What are they supposed to do?” Creal said. “Go back to the country where they face imminent danger and wait for a year?
“If congregations are prepared to help, that’s a start. We’re entering new territory.”
Creal said the coalition wants Bill C-31 amended to eliminate the wait for filing an appeal.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says the new restrictions are necessary because Canada is a haven to many false refugees who exploit the social welfare system.
In response, Kenney has created a “safe list” of countries. If an asylum-seeker comes from a country on the list, their case will be fast-tracked in a matter of weeks — meaning rejected applicants will be processed and deported before they can qualify for Canadian social assistance programs.
“There is a tension but we didn’t set this up,” said Mary Jo Leddy, a coalition member and the founder of Toronto’s Romero House, which provides shelter to refugees. “The government rammed this legislation through and we told them this would happen. People with a conscience just can’t slam shut the door on people.”
Toronto refugee lawyer Andrew Brouwer, who represents Pusuma, said refugee hearings under the new system would be held within six weeks of a claimant’s arrival in Canada. The problem is, all documents relating to the cases, including police and medical reports, must be submitted more than 20 days ahead of the hearing. That would leave claimants about three weeks to land in Canada, find a lawyer, complete their refugee applications, and obtain the necessary documents from their home country.
“It’s almost a dead certainty there will be more mistakes made because of the speed the IRB will be going at,” Creal said. “We see a need on the horizon for churches to get prepared.”
J. Santiago Rodriguez, a Jesuit scholar and coalition member, said it has been “a bit of a struggle” convincing churches.
“The thing we try to help them understand is that this is a civil disobedience and a lot of people are wary, especially with regard to their church’s charity status. They are worried that if it is seen as political work, it may be bad for their church.”
To qualify as a registered charity, Revenue Canada requires a church to devote the vast majority of its resources to charitable activities and to avoid politics. Losing that registered status is costly. Without it, church members cannot write off their donations and the church loses favourable tax treatment.
The Pusuma case helps illustrate how hard it can be to find a church whose members are willing to hide a fugitive.
“We were calling around three weeks before Christmas and so many people said they couldn’t help this family,” Leddy said. “We must have called 20 churches and they all said they were too busy getting ready for Christmas to help.”
Pusuma arrived Sept. 16, 2009, at Pearson International Airport with his family and $1 in his pocket. Friends and neighbours had collected the $2,000 airfare they needed for return tickets to Toronto.
(Return tickers are necessary because airlines in Hungary typically won’t allow Roma to board flights to Canada on one-way fares.)
After they declared themselves refugees, they were questioned and released. Another family on the same flight agreed to call a shelter on Christie Ave. and gave them money for a taxi.
Another Hungarian Roma gave Pusuma the cellphone number of an immigration consultant who helped Pusuma apply for legal aid. Pusuma said he immediately gave the consultant a letter that documented his work for Mohacsi.
After eight weeks, the family moved from the shelter into an apartment building in East York. They didn’t have much. The couple slept on a blanket on the floor. They couldn’t afford a bed after buying little Viktoria an inflatable mattress.
“It was our happiest time in Canada,” Timea said. “We discovered new things about Canada, like chick peas. We lived in a building with Mexican, Colombian and Pakistani families, and we often shared dinners together. It was wonderful. We were all in the same boat.”
The family received $1,249 in welfare per month and paid $995 in rent.
A year and a half after their arrival, Pusuma and his wife appeared for their IRB hearing. But when the immigration consultant tried to introduce the letter from Mohacsi, the IRB panel refused it.
After they were rejected, they appealed to federal court. The justice took aim at Pusuma’s then-lawyer, who was the consultant’s supervisor.
“In this case, (Pusuma’s) counsel’s incompetence meant (the Pusumas) were precluded from admitting the ... letter into evidence,” Federal Court Justice James Russell wrote. “The . . . letter showed the male applicant was involved with a high-profile member of the European Parliament. His risk profile was different from that of ordinary Hungarian, so the exclusion of the Mohacsi Letter impacted the RPD’s state protection analysis . . . .
“Had counsel’s incompetence not prevented the Applicants from adducing the Mohacsi Letter as evidence, the result may have been different.”
Pusuma’s current lawyer, Brouwer, has filed a request with the Ministry of Citizenship asking that the family be allowed to remain in Canada on humanitarian grounds. There has been no answer from the government.
“There are clear errors in our system and an error in a refugee determination is a life and death error,” Brouwer said. “The church in this case is stepping in to ensure the protection of life. They don’t do it to operate above the law. They do it to hold Canadian law to its highest legal obligation and it’s tragic that it’s come to this.”
Posted by Morgan at 1:41 PM