OTTAWA/TORONTO - Two Americans who deserted the U.S. Army to protest against the war in Iraq lost their bid for refugee status in Canada on Thursday, and the Canadian government made it clear they were no longer welcome.
The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear appeals from the two men, Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey, over decisions by immigration authorities -- backed in two subsequent court rulings -- that they were not refugees in need of protection.
Opposing the war on the belief that it was illegal and immoral, the two deserted when they learned their units would be deployed to Iraq, and came to Canada.
If deported to the United States, they say they face a court martial and up to five years in prison.
During the Vietnam War, Canada was a haven for tens of thousands of draft dodgers and deserters. But Hinzman and Hughey were volunteers rather than conscripts.
Their backers urged the government to let them stay in Canada anyhow, but this met with little sympathy from Ottawa.
"Canadians want a refugee system that helps true refugees," said Mike Fraser, spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley.
"All refugee claimants in Canada have the right to due process and when they have exhausted those legal avenues we expect them to respect our laws and leave the country."
He declined to comment on whether active steps would be taken to deport the two men to the United States. In any case, it could still take months before they can be sent away, said Lee Zaslofsky of the War Resisters Support Campaign.
"They won't be deported tomorrow; there is a process," said Zaslofsky, himself a Vietnam War deserter. He said the immigration department would ask if the two men want to do a "pre-removal risk assessment," which can take months.
An immigration spokeswoman, Karen Chadd-Evelyn, said such an assessment would judge whether in the United States they would be at risk of torture, death or cruel and unusual punishment or treatment.
They can also apply for permanent residence in Canada on humanitarian or compassionate grounds.
The War Resisters Support Campaign, aware of some 55 deserters who have come to Canada since 2004, said they would press for a political way to let the deserters stay.
"It's up to (politicians) if they want to give resisters access to Canada, as they did during the Vietnam War," Michelle Robidoux said in the group's small Toronto office.
The small opposition New Democratic Party said it would introduce a motion calling on the House of Commons immigrations committee to hold immediate hearings on the issue.
Meanwhile, one stratagem appeared to be for resisters to use the legal system to enable them to stay longer in Canada.
One deserter who still hopes to stay is Kimberly Rivera, from Mesquite, Texas. She came to Canada in February with her husband and two small children while on a two-week army leave, after spending three months on security duty in Iraq.
Despite the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the Hinzman and Hughey appeals, Rivera said she plans to continue filing court appeals in her own case. "I'm sure it's going to be denied but at least it gives us more time here," she said.
(Editing by Janet Guttsman)
© Reuters 2007