MONTREAL - Canadian leaders, not the country's refugee system, should decide
the fate of soldiers who have deserted the U.S. military to apply for asylum
in their northern neighbor, according to a support group.
One of those soldiers, Jeremy
Hinzman, will go before Canada's refugee board Monday for a hearing on whether
he qualifies for asylum. The adjudicator who will decide the case has already
announced he will not consider the argument that Hinzman did not have to serve
because the U.S.-led war on Iraq was illegal.
"While that may provide good grounds of appeal, if an appeal is necessary,
Jeremy would have preferred to be able to bring that up," said Lee Zaslofsky
of the War Resisters Support Campaign.
"It's a disappointing and obviously mistaken ruling," he told IPS
At the same time, "this is a political question," added Zaslofsky.
"This is not simply a question of 'can we get the refugee board to agree
that Jeremy and the others are refugees under the definition?' The issue here
is, will Canada let these guys stay?"
Hinzman arrived in Canada on Jan. 3, 2004 with his wife and child, fleeing
his Army unit, the 82nd Airborne Regiment, just days before it was to depart
for Iraq. The Army specialist, who had already served in Afghanistan, had applied
to be discharged or reassigned as a conscientious objector (CO), but the military
denied his request.
Going through the CO process can take up to a year, says Bill Galvin of the
Washington, D.C.-based Center on Conscience
and War, a member of the GI Rights
"That's a year during which you have officially gone public saying you
cannot in good conscience do this, and yet you are required to [serve],"
Galvin told IPS that despite years of submitting Freedom of Information Act
requests, the center has yet to receive official figures from the Defense Department
on the number of applications being made for CO status.
But he says his group is now processing a "couple dozen" submissions
and estimates that another 10 organizations countrywide are doing similar work.
Some soldiers apply independently, he noted.
But Galvin, himself a CO during the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s, cautions
soldiers who have left their units without permission (making them absent without
leave, or AWOL) to think hard before heading to the U.S.-Canada border.
"Hundreds of people go AWOL every day; being AWOL is no big deal. [But]
desertion is a specific intent and crime. If your intent is to never return
or to avoid war ... that is much more serious."
"Part of the problem is, when folks go to Canada and apply for asylum,
they provide the government with evidence," adds Galvin, "so by going
to Canada they actually make their situation with the U.S. military worse."
Two recent conscientious objectors who deserted, Camilo Mejia and Stephen Funk,
each were sentenced to one year in jail by military courts-martial earlier this
year. "The fact that these guys [in Canada] have not only gone AWOL but
gone to Canada, applied for asylum, and talked to the press, that's going to
really hurt them" if they return to the United States, Galvin argues.
Galvin says that despite those risks it is estimated that a dozen other U.S.
soldiers are already in Canada "underground," awaiting the outcome
of Hinzman's refugee hearing.
Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) grants asylum to people who can
prove they are "in need of protection," meaning that to remove them
from Canada would create a danger of torture, a risk to their life, or a risk
of cruel and unusual punishment or treatment.
It also grants asylum to those who fit the definition found in the United Nations
Refugee Convention; that is, they have a "well-founded fear of persecution"
based on: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a
particular social group.
A decision from next week's hearing is not expected until February, says Zaslofsky.
It could be appealed to the Federal Court of Canada and then to the immigration
"I think there are many others who would be very encouraged to come north
if there was such a ruling or if there were a policy decision by the government,"
he adds. - I'm not saying a flood ... but there are certainly many guys in the
military ... who are very very demoralized and unwilling to go to Iraq."
Canada accepted tens of thousands of "draft dodgers" in the Vietnam
era, but many people believe taking such a stand today would irritate already
tense relations between the world's largest trading partners.
Prime Minister Paul Martin hosted U.S. President George W. Bush on his first
official visit to Canada this week, one year after he replaced former Prime
Minister Jean Chretien, who decided last year to keep his country out of the
Iraq war, a decision that chilled relations between the neighbors.
Reportedly, Bush has asked Martin to provide experts for a controversial election
scheduled for January in occupied Iraq, while the prime minister wants Washington
to reopen the border to Canadian beef, blocked since a "mad cow" was
exported south in 2003.
Also a resister during the Vietnam War, Zaslofsky says, "When we came
there was no refugee process for us ... we were simply allowed to apply as landed
immigrants ... at the time tens of thousands of people came to Canada [via that
"We would prefer some kind of provision like that ... we're not looking
for [a process where] every single refugee case of every war resister who comes
from the [United] States will be successful you can see that that's not
a very reliable or pleasant process."
Two other U.S. soldiers have applied for asylum in Canada. David Sanders will
have his hearing Jan. 28, while the case of Brandon Hughey is likely to come
up after that date, says Zaslofsky.
He adds that the Canadian public largely supports the asylum seekers, noting
his organization has collected 15,000 signatures on a petition calling for the
men to be permitted to stay in this country.
According to Zaslofsky, "It's getting very close to the time when the
government will have to make a decision on this. These are actual human beings;
it's not a theoretical issue any more. Are we going to offer up these guys on
the altar of making nice with President Bush ... or is Canada going to do the