The arrest last month of a US humanitarian worker entering Canada with 12 Haitian asylum seekers has serious implications for church groups and organizations that help refugees, says Mennonite Central Committee Canada’s refugee coordinator.
MCC is a North American relief, development and peace agency of the Mennonite family of Anabaptist churches. It has a world-wide reputation for good practice.
Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, director of PRIME – Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees was arrested on 26 September 2007 at the Lacolle border-crossing in Quebec and faces charges of "aiding and abetting asylum seekers".
Ed Wiebe, refugee programme coordinator for MCC Canada, said Hinshaw-Thomas made Canadian history because she is the first humanitarian worker arrested under a section in Canadian legislation that is intended to deter criminal gangs from smuggling people.
“How could this have happened—why did the government of Canada allow this to happen?” asked Wiebe. “The law was never intended to be used against humanitarian personnel.”
“If they can arrest her, they can arrest anyone,” he said, noting that MCC is joining other groups to support efforts that ensure legal protection for refugee workers and advocates.
Section 117 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act passed in June 2002 states that “No person shall knowingly organize, induce, aid or abet the coming into Canada of one or more persons who are not in possession of a visa, passport or other document required by this Act.”
Wiebe said during parliamentary debate on the bill that became the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act concerns had been raised that the people smuggling provisions could be used against individuals acting on humanitarian motives to help refugees.
During debate government officials had assured Members of Parliament that charges laid under section 117 would require the consent of the Attorney General of Canada as a safeguard against prosecution of persons who are assisting refugees on humanitarian motives.
“We are deeply concerned that this provision is now being applied to a faith-based refugee worker,” said Wiebe. “While we deplore the smuggling of human beings in all forms, this is not smuggling,” he said, explaining numerous organizations based in the US and Canada have been bringing refugees to the border in cooperation with the border services agency.
Based on the information that he has received, Hinshaw-Thomas had forewarned the border service agency that she was arriving at the border with seven children and five adults, said Wiebe.
“She was bringing these people to the attention of the border officials—she was helping them go through the legal processes to gain legal entry into Canada,” he added.
Wiebe said the 12 Haitians have not been sent back to the USA. They are now legally in Canada awaiting a refugee hearing.
Hinshaw-Thomas was detained for 24 hours and her rented van and cell phone were seized by the border services agency. She will appear in court on 30 November 2007 for procedural hearings.
The MCC US staff is also shocked at the arrest. MCC US does not provide funding to Hinshaw-Thomas’s organization but is supportive of the activities undertaken by the organization, said Rolando Santiago, executive director of MCC US.
PRIME – Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees has offices near Philadelphia and in Lancaster, PA, in close proximity to the MCC US office in Akron, Pennsylvania.
PRIME currently offers immigration counseling and processing services to people in need but Santiago said in past years, when the organization provided resettlement services for refugees, Mennonite congregations partnered with them to serve as host congregations for refugees.