Archbishop Andrew Hutchison speaks with Iranian Amir Kazemian, who is in sanctuary at Vancouver’s St. Michael’s Church.
The resignation of federal Immigration Minister Judy Sgro on Jan. 14 stalled negotiations between the government and churches offering sanctuary to refugees whose applications to stay in Canada have been denied.
Ms. Sgro stepped down from cabinet following charges that she promised a man she would intervene in his immigration case in exchange for help with her re-election campaign last June.
“It’s a disappointment. Our conversations had a certain momentum. Now we have to build new relationships and there is the potential for further delays on present sanctuary cases,” commented Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. He, along with other church representatives, have held talks with Ms. Sgro and her staff.
Human Resources Minister Joe Volpe replaced Ms. Sgro. Archbishop Hutchison said he does not know Mr. Volpe but would welcome an early opportunity to meet him. The churches’ main goal, he said, is to see the refugee appeal process improved.
Earlier, Ms. Sgro had granted temporary resident permits to two families in sanctuary, a move welcomed by some churches as “good news.”
The Ayele family from Ethiopia had sought sanctuary at the Union United Church in Montreal in mid-2003. Samsu Mia from Bangladesh has been helped by the First Unitarian Congregation in Ottawa, also since mid-2003. The churches agreed to support them to facilitate their integration and independence in Canada.
Ms. Sgro made the announcement last Dec. 13 during a meeting with representatives from the Anglican, Presbyterian, and Unitarian churches in Toronto.
A temporary resident permit “allows that person to come out of sanctuary and be present in the community while other necessary paperwork moves forward,” said Archdeacon Paul Feheley, the primate’s principal secretary, who attended the December meeting on behalf of the Anglican church. The permit does not confer refugee status on those who have come out of sanctuary.
Mr. Feheley said that Citizenship and Immigration Canada will also expedite consideration of two other sanctuary cases that churches have submitted directly to Ms. Sgro. They involve Amir Kazemian from Iran, who is in sanctuary at St. Michael’s Anglican church in Vancouver, and Alvaro Vega and family from Colombia, who are at St. Andrew’s Norwood United Church in Montreal.
Archbishop Hutchison visited Mr. Kazemian as part of a visit to the diocese of New Westminster in early December.
Rev. Richard Fee, moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, said that it was the churches’ understanding that they could submit more files to Ms. Sgro.
There are about a dozen known cases of people in sanctuary in Canada.
The newest case involved Guatemalan Sergio Loreto Garcia, who came out of hiding in the Hispanic Anglican church of San Lorenzo in Toronto last month and begged Ms. Sgro to let him stay in Canada.
Mr. Garcia, who came to Canada in 1987, was to have been deported Sept. 24.
Mr. Feheley also said the issue of merit-based appeal, which churches have been pushing for, would be the subject of other meetings.
Some members of Parliament and non-governmental organizations advocating for refugee rights criticized Ms. Sgro’s intervention and questioned why churches were being given preferential treatment. Heather Macdonald, the United Church of Canada’s program officer for refugees and immigration, said that in a meeting with Ms. Sgro in November, she had made another offer to extend the same intervention “to others in the community” and that it “went beyond the churches.”
The series of meetings with Ms. Sgro took place after churches called for a dialogue following her remarks last year that providing sanctuary to refugees constituted a “security risk.” Canadian church leaders, including Archbishop Hutchison, defended what they called the church’s time-honoured and theologically-based tradition of providing sanctuary to refugees facing deportation.
With files from Solange De Santis