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Offering sanctuary in Sikh Temple


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Offering sanctuary has to go hand in hand with respect for the law

EDITORIAL : Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

There's been an outpouring of sympathy for Laibar Singh, a paralysed man taking sanctuary in a Sikh temple in Abbotsford to avoid a deportation order. Unable to dress, feed or bathe himself, Singh requires total care, which his supporters are selflessly providing.

Singh, 48, entered Canada in 2003 using false documents and subsequently claimed refugee status, saying he'd been wrongfully accused of being involved with a terrorist group in India. He suffered a brain aneurysm that left him paralysed last year, a few weeks after he fled to Vancouver to avoid a deportation order handed down in Montreal.

His applications for refugee status, including an exemption on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, have been rejected and a pre-removal risk assessment ruled that his fears of cruel and unusual punishment if he were returned to India, where his four children live, were based on facts that were not credible.

His last resort is the political route -- intervention by Immigration Minister Diane Finley, who holds the power to overrule the deportation order on compassionate grounds.

Until it is known whether she will allow Singh to stay, he intends to remain in the Gurdwara Kalgidhar Darbar Sahib Society Temple. This is the first time someone has sought sanctuary in a temple in Canada. The Canada Border Services Agency has made it clear that it does not plan to enter the house of worship to remove him -- at least, not yet.

The principle of sanctuary has a long and mostly honourable history. In medieval times, it offered protection for those to whom the king, or emperor or other absolute ruler took an intense dislike. Today, due process protects the individual from arbitrary measures. Canada's system is far from perfect, but it has given Singh ample opportunity to plead his case. He has run the course over four years of applications and appeals, including a judicial review of his failed refugee claim by Federal Court, all of which have been refused.

Canada is a compassionate country. It accepts about 50 per cent of refugee claimants for permanent residence, compared with an average of 14 per cent among 17 other Western countries. When rates are adjusted for population, it admits five times as many as other nations. Canada has nothing to be ashamed of in its treatment of refugees.

On the other hand, Singh came to Canada using a fake passport and, despite claims by some groups that "no one is illegal," presenting false papers is an offence in Canada that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Singh's situation is not the same as Ji-Won Park, the 22-year-old South Korean student left in a vegetative state after a brutal attack in Stanley Park. Although her student visa expired, the then immigration minister Denis Coderre allowed her to stay on compassionate grounds. No removal action was ever taken.

Nor is Singh's case similar to that of Amir Kazemian, who spent two years in St. Michael's Anglican Church to avoid deportation to his home country, Iran. There was little doubt that Kazemian was tortured before he left Iran and even less that he'd be tortured on his return. What's more, his mother had come to Canada as a refugee years before and was granted permanent residency in 2001.

Singh's fate is now in the hands of the immigration minister. If he is denied refugee status and the deportation order is upheld, he should voluntarily offer himself up to authorities.

Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples have an obligation to ensure that people they shield from law enforcement agencies have well-founded fears of persecution and to respect the rules regarding refugee claimants. Otherwise, they'll erode public support for the convention of sanctuary, putting legitimate refugee claimants in jeopardy.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

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