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 from Toronto.
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 network.
"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]," he added.
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 minister.
"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 process]."
"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 right thing?"