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Flood of Refugees Leads to Hunger Strike, Hearings, Possible Amnesty

March 3, 1987

TORONTO (AP) _ Authorities trying to stem the flood of refugees entering Canada were confronted Tuesday by the 11th day of a Chilean hunger strike in Montreal and new hearings for Central Americans waiting at the U.S. border.

There were conflicting reports about an amnesty to clear 23,000 outstanding cases.

A group of 28 refuge-seekers from Chile came to Canada before the government’s Feb. 20 decision to close the border and prevent would-be refugees from simply crossing into the country.

The decision stranded 106 of the Chileans’ relatives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, just before they were to board a flight for Montreal. The Canadian Embassy in Buenos Aires is now reviewing their cases.

The hunger strikers, all men except for a 13-year-old girl, have been fasting since Feb. 21 to pressure immigration authorities to grant refugee status to their relatives.

″If they don’t come, I will die here,″ said Franco Mendes, whose wife and 3-year-old son are among those stranded in Argentina.

Seven of the demonstrators stopped drinking water on Monday, and the Rev. Juan Iturriaga, pastor of a local church helping the Chileans, said a doctor told him that without food and water the seven could die within 48 hours.

At Niagara Falls, Ontario, across the river from New York State, immigration authorities began formal hearings for hundreds of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Chileans who want refugee status in Canada but were prevented from crossing the border because of the new border restrictions.

Most of the Central Americans have lived in the United States for several years but are fleeing now because of a new U.S. immigration law signed in November that threatens illegal aliens with deportation.

Latin Americans formed the majority of the 6,000 refuge-seekers who streamed into Canada in the first six weeks of 1987, taking advantage of the former policy that granted admission to anyone declaring himself a refugee.

But the influx by planes, ships and autos included thousands of Turks, Sri Lankans and Portuguese seeking a better life.

Some refugees carried false documents.

The flood of refugees has caused a public backlash, overburdened welfare services and drawn complaints from ethnic communities claiming genuine immigrants are kept waiting because of the influx.

A report in The Globe and Mail on Tuesday said Proggressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Cabinet has approved a general amnesty to clear the backlog of 23,000 applicants already in Canada that would permit them to work and establish homes.

Asked about the report, Gerry Weiner, minister of state for immigration, told reporters: ″We didn’t declare an amnesty in the past and it’s unlikely we will do so in the future.″

The government had announced a procedure last May to accelerate 21,500 cases, but 18,000 later arrivals subsequently inundated immigration officers. Nevertheless, Weiner said, applicants were being handled case-by-case and 15 percent to 20 percent were being rejected, but he gave no overall figures.

The Globe and Maril report said long-awaited legislation to be introduced this month calls for a more restrictive refugee determination system in which most applicants arriving from safe, third countries would be denied access to Canada.

Under such a policy, the 155 Tamils from Sri Lanka found adrift off the coast of Newfoundland last August would be returned to West Germany, where they had already applied for asylum.

Rivka Augenfeld, spokesman for a coalition of refugee groups helping the new arrivals in Montreal, said the proposed legislation would cause ″mass confusion″ and damage Canada’s humanitarian tradition.

Opposition Liberal Party member Sergio Marchi said in Parliament Tuesday that the procedures were a ″bureaucratic nightmare.″

Canada has one of the world’s more liberal immigration policies and expects to accept 125,000 new residents under a quota system this year. Until last month, refugee-applicants bypassing the normal system were admitted automatically once they reached Canada. Now most will be forced to apply at Canadian consulates abroad.

″Every real refugee who arrives at our doors will be provided haven and settled here,″ Weiner said. ″But those who don’t meet the criteria, and two- thirds of the 18,000 who arrived last year were not bona fide refugees, they must be forced to go back into the immigration system. How else do you deter abusers?″

In general, real refugees are considered ones who flee to avoid persecution in their homeland, and not those who leave to seek economic advantages.

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