Iraq war resisters seek refugee status in Canada

Iraq war resisters seek refugee status in Canada
In-depth: After more than a decade living in Canada, US soldiers that refused to serve in the Iraq war want permanent status in the country.
5 min read
Trudeau (right) has said he's 'open' to letting US soldiers stay in Canada [Getty]
Most have been in Canada for more than a decade. Many are working in their communities. Some have Canadian-born spouses and children.

But for the American conscientious objectors that voiced opposition to the war in Iraq and evaded US military service, the struggle to remain in Canada has been a series of uphill battles that they now hope will be resolved with a new government in Ottawa.

"We're quite confident that these cases, if they were dealt with on a case-by-case basis, would result with them being allowed to stay," said Michelle Robidoux, spokesperson for the War Resisters Support Campaign, an advocacy group founded when the first US military members came to Canada.

The first Iraq war resister, Jeremy Hinzman, arrived in Canada with his wife and child in 2004. Hinzman was among about 200 US citizens that refused to serve in the war in Iraq that sought refuge in Canada at the movement's peak between 2004 and 2007.

About 15 US war resisters remain in Canada today.

"They are obviously people of conscience and they didn't want to be to participate in war crimes in Iraq, so why should we be sending them to be punished by the US?" Robidoux told The New Arab.

They didn't want to be to participate in war crimes in Iraq, so why should we be sending them to be punished?

Changing the policy

The conscientious objectors fear arrest, court martial and jail if forced to return to the US. Many filed refugee claims in Canada, fearing persecution back home for their anti-war views, while others sought asylum on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

"The court has found that yes, there's evidence that US soldiers that speak out against the Iraq war in Canada are harshly punished if they are returned to the US. Whereas if you're just AWOL from the US military and you turn yourself in… by and large you're just going to be administratively dealt with," Robidoux said.

But Canada's previous Conservative government, under then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, issued a directive named Operation Bulletin 202 that flagged US war resisters as criminals and suggested that they were inadmissible to Canada.

The bulletin also implies that a distinction exists between US military deserters, and deserters from other countries, Amnesty International found.

"This bulletin fails to note that military desertion for reasons of conscience is in fact clearly recognised as a legitimate ground for refugee protection," Amnesty wrote in a recent letter to Canada's minister of immigration, calling for the directive to be rescinded.

Some US war resisters were deported from Canada during the Harper years, including Kimberly Rivera, a mother-of-four who was jailed for 10 months when returned to the US.

Robidoux said Operational Bulletin 202 should be cancelled, "which would mean that each case could go forward on its own merits without interference by the government weighing in against these applications".

She said her group also wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government to drop pending litigation, initiated under the Conservatives, filed against US war resisters. A federal court is expected to hear the case in November.

"So far we have zero indication that they're changing their policy," Robidoux said of the Liberals. "We're hopeful that they will."
So far we have zero indication that they're changing their policy... We're hopeful that they will

No promises from Ottawa

Recently, Trudeau said he was reviewing the government's position on US war resisters, but he made no concrete promises regarding the long-standing issue. "It's one that we are looking into actively as a government," he said in Toronto on May 6.

During the 2015 federal election campaign, however, Trudeau said he was "supportive of the principle of allowing conscientious objectors to stay" in Canada.

It was Trudeau's father, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who said that Canada should be "a refuge from militarism" when he welcomed US soldiers during the Vietnam War. Up to 40,000 US army deserters came to Canada at that time.

In an email, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada said the department could not comment on specific cases due to privacy concerns.

"There are no [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada] programmes geared specifically toward foreign nationals fleeing their country's military service," Remi Lariviere said.

He said individuals could make refugee claims in Canada, which would then be referred to the refugee protection division of the country's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). They may also apply for residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

"In order to grant protection, decision-makers at the IRB must be satisfied that a claimant has a well-founded fear of persecution or that the claimant, if removed, would face a risk of torture, risk to life, or a risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment," Lariviere said.

'We want peace'

Joshua Key, who served in the US army in Iraq in 2003, described witnessing and participating in "senseless acts of violence and aggression" against Iraqi civilians.

"One such incident included a night on the banks of the Euphrates river when my unit was called to the scene of a firefight. When we arrived and I approached, I saw soldiers, my fellow American soldiers, kicking around decapitated heads like soccer balls," he wrote in a statement posted on the War Resisters Support Campaign website.

Key said all that he and the other former members of the US military want is to live peacefully in Canada.

"If I, or any of the other brave men who fought for their country, are deported from Canada we face a fate left in the hands of the US military. An institution we learned, from cruel experience, that we should not trust," he wrote.

Robidoux said Canadians had overwhelmingly supported the war resisters' demand to be allowed to stay. The war resisters, meanwhile, are "in-between hope and feeling worn out from this fight", she said.

"That's why we really want the Liberal government to do this quickly and not drag it out until November when it has to go to court. I think Canadians want to see a resolution to this quickly, and of course the war resisters deserve to have it resolved quickly."

May 15 is the International Day for Conscientious Objectors. Read more about it here.

Jillian Kestler D'Amours is a journalist based in Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @jkdamours