Gone are the days of asylum


A look at how seeking asylum has evolved over the centuries  

Paige Kreutzwieser

To understand why Victoria Sharon Ordu and Ihuoma Favour Amadi, University of Regina International students, are seeking sanctuary, it is necessary to look at the history of sanctuaries, and how the concept has been used in Canadian society in the past.  

Cities of refuge date back to around the 9th century B.C., and possibly earlier. During this era, six cities around the Jordan River were regarded in the Bible as cities of refuge. Within these cities, a fugitive who unintentionally perpetrated a crime, generally murder, would be granted protection by priests living in one of these cities, until he or she had time to validate and defend the crime they committed. Once allowed the right of asylum, the fugitive was detained in the city where he or she took refuge – leaving the city would be a risky decision.  

A question that is often asked is, ‘how could someone essentially get away with murder by moving to another city?’

According to the Priestly Code – a body of laws conveyed in the Torah – once a refugee claimed shelter in a certain city of refuge, the individual would eventually be tried, and if found innocent, no harm would be allowed to be placed on them. The only way a refugee could be granted freedom from the city would be if the Jewish high priest died, which was viewed as a form of atonement.

"There's no place in Canada where an individual can retreat and be immune from Canadian Law." – Lisa White

This idea of cities of refuge later evolved. In Medieval England, a fugitive could take sanctuary at the nearest church, and would be promised freedom and safety from interference for 40 days.

Unlike the Biblical era, refugees in the 12th century could not stay in asylum for their entire lives. Their options were to surrender, attempt escape, or leave the country through "abjuring the realm," thus losing any land and personal possessions.  

While England ended its sanctuary laws in 1623, the concept was revived in Canada during the 1980's.    

The model of taking sanctuary has shifted from a Biblical background to a constitutional issue. Today, seeking asylum is equated to terms like refugees, deportation, and other legal jargon.

Before 1980, police hesitated infringing upon sanctuary right, but under today's legal system, any place acting as a sanctuary cannot be protected from a lawful and warranted search by police. 

Lisa White, spokeswoman for the Canadian Border Services Agency told the Leader-Post that "there's no place in Canada where an individual can retreat and be immune from Canadian Law."

Seeking sanctuary has clearly transformed over the centuries, mainly due to the decline of the church in state affairs.

While only a few people know the whereabouts of the women, their asylum has become a waiting game, leaving them wondering what will happen next.

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