Watchful eyes

Feb 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, known for helping refugees worldwide since its formation by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950, is about to bring Canada-U.S. border points such as the Ambassador Bridge into the world spotlight.

Commission officials in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa, have been invited by the United States and Canada to help monitor the Safe Third Country Agreement signed by both governments last December.

The deal was bad news for asylum seekers because Canada’s policies are more lenient than ours.

The result is that a lot of people who entered this country intending to then head north are now screwed.

The commission wants to make sure that wherever these folks land, they at least get a fair hearing.

It’s the first time the United Nations has been part of such a process in the United States, according to Andrew Painter, a senior protection officer with the commission in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a growth in our protection of refugees,” says Painter, whose regional office covers the United States and the Caribbean.

Commission officials will also be monitoring border crossings in Buffalo and Champlain, N.Y. Painter says that, among other things, the commission will be checking to ensure asylum claims are actually being reviewed. It will also keep an eye on nongovernmental organizations and detention facilities.

Detroit’s Freedom House, which offers asylum seekers in Detroit food, shelter and legal assistance, is the main non-governmental organization assisting commission officials locally, says legal director David Koelsch.

The agreement has already had a significant effect. Koelsch says Freedom House helped 52 people get asylum in Canada last month; that compares to 178 in January 2004.

“We’re getting calls every day from people saying, ‘We want to go to Canada’ — and we say, ‘You can’t,’” Koelsch says.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]