Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Caught in the middle: Afghan refugees in Russia

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A bizarre sidebar has popped up in the midst of Canada's and the world's wrestling with what to do in the face of Russia's brazen annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea.

A number of refugees from Afghanistan who had taken refuge in Russia, and who were hoping to come to Canada to join their families already settled here, have been caught in the middle of these shifting diplomatic currents.

Ninety-seven of these refugees had been sponsored to come here by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg in association with Hospitality House Refugee Ministry. In the rosier, early days of 2014, before the start of the Sochi Olympics, Canada's embassy staff in Moscow either refused, or set in motion the refusal wheels, for all of these. They wouldn't be coming here.

Russia was now a signatory to the Geneva Convention on Refugees and hence all refugees were deemed safe and to have a "durable solution" in Russia. This disentitled them to come to Canada despite having family here waiting, and despite their church sponsorship. Those are the rules.

As a part of the community of convention signers, Canada was respecting Russia as it does other European countries that embrace democratic structures and humanitarian goals, and have signed the Geneva Convention. Apparent good intentions deserve official support.

There was more than a little creative fiction in all this, as there is from time to time in South Africa, too, where Canada's refusal of refugees often happens on the same grounds. Neither place is all that accepting and friendly to refugees. Xenophobia exists, often in extreme forms, and refugees can suffer brutal consequences. And Russia, unlike South Africa, which usually accepts its refugees, is also inclined in more than 90 per cent of cases to decide that claimants are not refugees, rendering them liable to deportation.

The refusal decisions in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow were likely to stand, unable to be challenged in any practical sense, and if one tried it would probably be without success.

Then came the upheaval in Ukraine, and Russia's seizure of Crimea. Canada immediately withdrew its ambassador in Moscow. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper joins with other world leaders to condemn Russia, and to invoke sanctions, it somehow seems ironic refugees sponsored by Winnipeg churches for their families here should be deemed safe where they are and unable to get out of such a country.

Manitoba Refugee Sponsors, the umbrella group for sponsors here such as the Archdiocese of Winnipeg, is writing to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, to request that he intervene and reverse these negative decisions in light of recent developments in Ukraine and with Russia.

Such action by the minister, in addition to rescuing many Afghan refugees (wanting to come to Winnipeg as well as other parts of Canada), would draw further attention to Russia's current inability to play an appropriate, respectable role in the community of nations.


Tom Denton is executive director, sponsorship, Hospitality House Refugee Ministry

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2014 A9

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