After more than three years fighting the government in court and nearly eight months hiding in a church, a woman who immigration officials say lied about her sexual orientation is being deported.
This week, accompanied by two law enforcement officers, Angela Haman will be sent back to Cameroon because the government is convinced she lied about being a lesbian so she could stay in Canada.
Despite the government’s assertion she lied, Global News is identifying Haman by a pseudonym because she says she could be harmed if returned to Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal.
Like other failed refugees who have sought sanctuary in a church, her case again raises the issue of whether religious institutions have a right to shield people from arrest when all legal options have been exhausted.
“They call that jungle justice,” said Haman, when first profiled by Global News in January.
Haman identifies as a lesbian. She fears returning to Cameroon, a country where homosexuals are routinely persecuted, even killed, because of their sexual orientation.
For much of the past eight months, she was living in “sanctuary” at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, in violation of an arrest warrant and deportation order issued by the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA).
But on Sept. 17, she left the church and was arrested. Since then she’s been held by the CBSA at a B.C. correctional facility.
“As difficult as this is to accept, your time in Canada, at least for the time being, is done,” said a judge from the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) during a Sept. 19 hearing.
No ‘legal right’ to sanctuary
Contrary to what many people believe, there is no legal protection for those who evade Canadian immigration officials by hiding in a place of worship.
Police, including the CBSA, can enter a place of worship to make an arrest. They simply choose not to.
“There are no places in Canada where individuals can retreat and be immune from Canadian law,” said CBSA spokesperson Ben Letts.
“Maintaining the integrity of Canada’s immigration system is a priority for the CBSA,” he said. “We will not tolerate those who attempt to bypass laws, such as those hiding in churches or other places of worship.”
But tolerate it they did.
A transcript of Haman’s detention hearing obtained by Global News shows the government was aware of her location since March.
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In other cases, such as that of ex-KGB operative Mikhail Lennikov, deemed inadmissible to Canada because he’d committed acts of “espionage,” it took the CBSA more than six years to secure a deal for him to leave the country.
“Although the CBSA officers may enter, or seek the appropriate warrant to enter, any building … our goal is to resolve sanctuary situations without enforcement action,” Letts said.
That means negotiating with religious officials or finding ways to make arrests outside of churches, he said.
The CBSA would not say why it prefers to make arrests outside of churches. Nor did it provide details of any situation that might prompt officers to enter a place of worship.
However, in 2010 Canwest News obtained documents that outlined the “exceptional circumstances” where the CBSA would enter a church. This included “cases where there are strong public calls for enforcement action” or a risk to public safety and national security.
And in 2004, after Quebec City police raided a church and arrested Algerian asylum seeker Mohamed Cherfi, then-Liberal immigration minister Judy Sgro said church sanctuary was a “back door” to entering Canada. She called for the practice to end.
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Meanwhile, current public safety minister Ralph Goodale says it’s “contrary to Canadian law” for churches to offer sanctuary and that the CBSA has an “obligation” to remove anyone deemed inadmissible to Canada as “rapidly as possible.”
He did, however, say the CBSA exercises judgement on a case-by-case on how and when to enforce the law in a “conscientious” and “respectful” manner.
Despite dozens of well-documented cases over the past four decades, the CBSA has never entered a place of worship to make an arrest, Letts said.
The CBSA told Global News it is not aware of any other person currently evading deportation by hiding in a place of worship.
Longstanding ‘tradition’ should be respected
Church sanctuary goes back thousands of years. It was practiced in ancient Rome, Greece and medieval Europe.
“Canada has a long tradition of welcoming people from countries where there has been war, violence or oppression,” said Peter Noteboom, the general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. “I think that ought to be safeguarded as best we can.”
While recognizing it’s not a legal right, Noteboom says churches and other faith communities have an “obligation” to help those in need — especially in cases of life and death.
He also says we “can’t delegate everything to the government.” In the rare cases where it’s unclear if someone could be in danger, every effort should be made to prevent mistakes.
The ‘political cost’ of fighting sanctuary
Richard Kurland is a Vancouver immigration lawyer familiar with Haman’s case.
While he’s sympathetic to the situation she now faces, he says there’s no doubt she misled immigration officials when submitting her asylum claim. He also says Canadian officials are justified in wanting her deported.
Still, he thinks churches should be allowed to grant sanctuary, calling it a “legitimate safety valve” in cases where the government may have got it wrong.
“Even if credibility has soured, the church may be supporting principle rather than fact,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sean Rehaag, an Osgoode Hall law professor, agrees churches should be allowed to offer sanctuary.
But he doesn’t see it as a legal right.
In fact, if the CBSA decided to enforce the law, it’s unlikely any legal challenges from churches could win, he said.
“Freedom of religion doesn’t extend to helping people breach Canadian law,” he said. “I don’t think the courts would recognize this as a protected part of freedom of religion.”
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Rehaag also questions whether churches are doing anything illegal when offering sanctuary.
While it’s clear the person evading police is violating immigration rules, so long as churches aren’t hiding refugees, and aren’t preventing police from entering their buildings, then the law isn’t really being broken, he says.
Instead, he sees the decision not to enforce the law as a political choice, not a legal one.
“There’s nothing magical about being in a church,” Rehaag said.
“What we’re talking about here is politics and political actors being reluctant to take on religious communities.”
Sisters ‘contrived’ story
Haman isn’t the only person in her family to apply for refugee protection on the grounds of being homosexual.
Roughly seven months before Haman applied to the IRB, her half-sister’s claim was approved based on a nearly identical story.
In fact, the sisters’ claims were so similar government lawyers argued they were “practical duplications,” of the same story. The government also said Haman made a “deliberate attempt to withhold information from the IRB” when submitting her application.
“The determinative issue in your case is credibility,” said the refugee judge who first heard Haman’s claim in August, 2015.
Most unbelievable, the judge said, was Haman’s claim she did not know her sister. This was despite both women saying they were raised by the same mother and both listing the same home address on their student visa applications.
The way they were outed was also suspicious, the judge said.
In both cases, Haman and her sister said Cameroonian police raided the home of a former same-sex partner and discovered suggestive photographs of them together. Police then used the photos to blackmail their ex-partners and question their mother, whom they said called them while they were in Canada to let them know they were wanted by police.
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Ultimately, the judge ruled Haman’s claim had “no credible basis,” meaning he believed she failed to present evidence that could be used to substantiate her story.
And while roughly 30 per cent of all sexual orientation claims are denied, the designation of “no credible basis” only occurs in two to three per cent of claims.
Because of Canada’s immigration rules, anyone given this designation is denied the right to appeal.
Still, in January, the last Federal Court judge to review Haman’s case said he was “not convinced” any new evidence she might have prevented could have changed the outcome.