Refusing Refuge

Canada prepares to send army deserters back to the US

Despite the fact that at the beginning of this month Australia, one of the United States' staunchest allies in the Middle East, decided to finally pull out of Iraq, their support for the war continues, albeit on a more low-key scale. While several hundred soldiers will return home, many will stay further in a redefined role: as so-called security guards and other such personnel.

What this demonstrates is that even though America's allies seemed to have abandoned Iraq, they nevertheless are still helping out in one way or another. Thus, governments like Australia are playing a two-faced game: on the one hand they are appeasing public opinion which has come to regard the war as wrong, and on the other they are continuing to support the Huntington policy of a clash of civilizations, better known as George W. Bush's War on Terror. This entails not only continued and tacit support for the US in Iraq, but includes an increased military presence in Afghanistan, an area where the battle against the Taliban supposedly had long since been won.

Yet aside from direct support for the War on Terror in either Iraq or Afghanistan, many countries are providing support for US foreign policy in other ways. In Europe, for example, both France and Germany have shifted silently to the right as demonstrated by the saber rattling speeches against Iran by the likes of Sarkozy and Merkel respectively.

Meanwhile, in Canada the government has undertaken measures to prevent army deserters from entering the country and even returning those who are already in back to the US, where they face stiff penalties for their actions. Traditionally, Canada has served as a safe haven for Americans who valued a duty to their conscience above that of their commander-in-chief. During the Vietnam War, about 100,000 Americans sought refuge in Canada (it should be noted that two-thirds of those who fought in Vietnam were volunteers). Of those, approximately 30,000 ended up staying and living in Canada.

Some might argue that the difference between then and now is that economic conditions are much tougher, and that Canada would be unable to accommodate such an influx. Yet the present economic situation in Canada isn't as bad as in the US. More importantly, there is a vast difference in the numbers between then and now. Presently there are about 200 American deserters in Canada and of these only about 50 or so are asking for refugee status.

Still, as far as the Canadian government is concerned these people aren’t welcome, and attempts are now on the way to have them expelled and sent back to the US. In fact, the first American soldier to be deported back to the US is set to take place this week. Corey Glass, who sought asylum in August 2006 after serving in the Iraq War, is scheduled to be sent back on June 12.

Often when dealing with the issue of American military personnel who have gone AWOL (absent without leave) the term "draft dodger" is used interchangeably with that of "army deserter". This, in turn, ends up confusing the issue somewhat. For example, during the Vietnam War draft dodgers were those who were being drafted into the army; in other words, they had no interest in joining the military whatsoever but were forced to. Hence, thousands had fled to Canada because they felt that they had no choice; they were being forced to participate in a war that they didn't want to be part of. An army deserter, on the other hand, is someone who had willingly joined the military. Their reason for deserting was that either they were hoping that they would not get sent to a place like Iraq but did, or had already been to Iraq and didn't want to go again. Thus, in some ways they are more responsible for their fate because unlike draft dodgers they were not forced into the military; it's only after they got in that they realized the mistake they had made.

Along these lines, not everyone is sympathetic to the plight of American deserters in Canada. Those who are in favor of sending American army deserters back point out that those individuals signed a contract and that they should live up to their obligations or face the consequences. Furthermore, they argue that when someone joins the military they should assume that there is a reasonable chance that they will actually be deployed to do the job they are being trained and paid to do.

Moral argument and legal aspects

Those who favor returning deserters back to the US also feel that an unnecessary amount of money and resources are spent on them when the money is better served elsewhere. As one person in favor of the deportations observed, "we fund our immigration program so that people in real need can come into Canada and have access to medical, financial benefits, and social freedoms. Not so that someone who doesn't agree with what he signed off on can come in and waste our tax dollars."

Although it's true that those from the American military seeking refuge in Canada should have known what they were getting into when they joined the military, some point out that many of these people feel they have been tricked and lied to. In fact some, such as Glass, had signed up for the National Guard feeling that they would be doing humanitarian work and that they would only see military action if the country was attacked by a foreign army (this is the ultimate meaning of the term National Guard). Thus, many feel they had been duped, for they expected to be bagging sand and saving lives during a hurricane or flood and not in Iraq taking part in an illegal war.

Moreover, it's not only army deserters who feel that they have been tricked but the general public as well. Only now have most Americans come to the realization that their military is participating in a dirty and an illegal war. Hence, those in support of the deserters feel that it's incorrect and unfair to assume that those who refuse to go to Iraq are all cowards who simply don't feel like doing the job they signed up for. In fact, many of them actually went to Iraq as they were supposed to do and served honorably for at least one tour of duty; it was only after seeing the crimes against humanity occurring there that they could not in good conscience continue.

Finally, those who desert are often charged with being unpatriotic; yet to stand up against one's government when it is committing atrocities can be considered to be both a patriotic and honorable thing to do. As one supporter for the army deserters noted, "it is a mark of their integrity that they served in the first place, and that they came forward honestly about the problems at hand, despite knowing the severe consequences they would face by doing so."

It is this aspect of returning these people to the US that most concerns those who support American army deserters: the punishments that await them if they are sent back. Army deserters face jail time, dishonorable discharge, and are dropped to the lowest enlisted rank. It also means a loss of benefits, little or no hope of good employment, never being able to get a loan or a mortgage, and no passport. In other words, it's a permanent scar on a person's life.

There are some who go beyond simply the moral argument and also look into the legal aspects of Canada returning American army deserters. Some claim that Canada's position violates the UN Charter on Refugees which considers soldiers who refuse to take part in wars condemned by the international community as refugees. Since the fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t actually a “declared” war, it makes the Canadian government’s position that much more difficult to defend.

There is no doubt in the minds of most people that the Canadian government’s actions are nothing more than kowtowing to the US in much the same way that many other countries, in their own way, are still tacitly supporting the US in their military adventures. Although opposition parties in Canada had passed a resolution in parliament to allow American deserters stay, the minority government of Stephen Harper is under no obligation to follow this resolution.

Thus, the future status of Glass and other American deserters living in Canada is quite uncertain. It goes without saying that they won’t willingly return to the US of their own accord. Already the border is becoming more difficult to cross, with American army deserters now relying more on the “underground railroad” in order to get into Canada. It remains to be seen, however, how keen the Canadian police will be to pursue those who are already in the country and refuse to return home. (John Horvath)