Jewish refugee advocacy organization launches

Seen here at the JREN launch are, from left, Bernie Farber, Mary Jo Leddy, Stephen Lewis, Michele Landsberg, Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld and Ken Rosenberg. [Paul Lungen photo]

Calling Canada’s refugee determination system a “betrayal” of Canadian values, which should concern Canadian Jews, Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld announced the formal launch of the Jewish Refugee Action Network (JRAN) on June 21.

JRAN is “rooted in… the ancient summons to welcome the stranger,” said Rabbi Bielfeld, who founded the organization.

In announcing the launch of the organization, Rabbi Bielfeld was joined by Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and former leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, journalist Michele Landsberg, Mary Jo Leddy, founder of Romero House, and Ken Rosenberg, whose law firm Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP, hosted the event.

Bielfeld, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El, criticized the federal immigration legislation on a number of fronts, saying it contradicted Canadian values of tolerance and diversity, while “it targeted the Roma in Hungary for exclusion.”

He likened the treatment of Roma, known pejoratively as Gypsies, to the discrimination Jews had historically faced. Pointing to a vintage family photograph taken before Holocaust, he said 14 of the 16 kids from his family had “gone up the chimneys.”

The creation of a safe country list came under fire at the launch. Bernie Farber, chair of Ve’ahavta and a member of JRAN’s board, said that provision could put Hungarian Jews at risk.

“As a result of the government’s decision to create a safe country designated list, Hungarian Jews, who may want to come to Canada as refugees as a result of rampant antisemitism in Hungary, will be caught in the same net as the Roma and more than likely denied status. It should concern our community greatly,” he said.

The safe country list was one of several key sections of the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which came into affect in June 2012 when Bill C-31 received royal assent.

The bill gives the immigration minister the power to choose which countries are safe without input from a committee of human rights experts. It also prevented rejected refugee claimants from countries on the safe list from appealing the decision to the Immigration and Refugee Board, and it created a one-year wait period for claimants from countries on the safe country list before applying for compassionate and humanitarian considerations, allowing for their deportation in the meantime.

In announcing the changes, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney called the bill “a major step to protecting the integrity of Canada’s immigration system.”

Canada has “the highest per-capita number of settled refugees in the developed world,” he said. Bill C-31, however, is supposed to demonstrate to Canadians and immigrants “that we will not tolerate those who seek to abuse our generosity, including bogus asylum claimants, human smugglers and those who might represent a risk to Canadian security and safety,” he said.

Kenney said the law was tightened up after Canada received more asylum claims from European Union countries – 90 per cent of which had failed – than from Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

Though the claimants abandon or withdraw their claims, “virtually all of them enroll in Canada’s generous welfare social income, health care, subsidized housing and other social support programs. That’s why we had to take additional measures in this bill,” Kenney stated.

Lewis called the refugee law a “remarkably flawed piece of legislation.” He said the method of determining safe countries was “totally outrageous” and particularly flawed in the way it dealt “with tremendous vulnerability of human beings.”

He called for the creation of an expert panel to assist in the determination of safe havens.

He blasted the legislation for singling out Roma, but noted that other groups could be affected. He said rules that allowed for deportation before appeals were heard “showed contempt for the rule of law.” The denial of health care coverage was a “rancid” political ploy that pitted refugees against the anxieties of Canadians.

The refugee system is “punitive, destructive and insensitive,” Lewis said. “It has to change.”

Landsberg, who with Lewis was named honourary chair of JRAN, said she felt “a profound obligation as a Jew to the plight of refugees.” The Roma were being treated in the same way Jews were years ago. “A progressive, compassionate Jewish voice” was needed to change the situation, she said.

Rabbi Bielfeld said JRAN would embark on an educational program to inform people in the community about their concerns over the refugee law, and urge political activism to eventually see the legislation dropped.

Mary Jo Leddy, founder of Romero House, which provides a home for newly arrived refugees, said the legislation has created a “crisis situation. We are in a disaster.”

As a result of its implementation, “we have a real crisis in the making of an underclass of people… living underground” without access to health care and other services. Children are missing schools and people are living in fear, she said.

Leddy, founder of the Catholic New Times, said she saw herself “as part of this group as an honourary Jew.”

The creation of JRAN adds the moral weight of the Jewish community to the struggle to change Canada’s refugee laws.

“You know the way very few do – you have a good memory – of the cost of silence and that good people can do terrible things,” she said.

The CJN print edition returns August 1.