For Joshua Key, the final straw was watching his colleagues kick around decapitated heads like soccer balls.
Key, a former US soldier, served as a combat engineer in Iraq in 2003 before deserting while on a two-week furlough due to the "many senseless acts of violence and aggression against Iraqi civilians" that he witnessed during his deployment.
He then fled to Canada in 2005, where he applied for refugee status. His request was denied in 2006, but a federal court judge ordered the refugee board to review his bid for asylum. In 2010, he was rejected again and applied for spousal sponsorship with his Canadian wife, the outcome of which he still awaits.
Key's story is not unusual. For many soldiers who disagreed with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Canada seemed a logical destination – after all, the country welcomed roughly 50,000 American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. However, Iraq resisters soon discovered that legally staying in Canada would be more difficult than they anticipated. Today, an estimated two dozen former US soldiers who fled north in resistance to the 2003 war remain in Canada, fighting for the legal right to stay.
According to US Army statistics, only a small fraction of deserters are prosecuted: from 2001 to 2013 1,866 out of 35,598 of those charged with deserting were prosecuted. However, Iraq war resisters who return to America are likely to face prison sentences.
Cliff Cornell, who lived in British Columbia for four years after abandoning his unit before it deployed to Iraq in January 2005, was sentenced to one year after he returned to the US voluntarily. Robin Long, who also fled to British Columbia in 2005 after abandoning before deployment, was deported in 2008, found guilty of desertion, and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Kimberly Rivera, who deserted while on leave and moved to Toronto to avoid a second tour in Iraq in 2007, was sentenced to 10 months after returning to the US voluntarily in 2013.
Key's odds aren't good: No Iraq war resister who has filed a claim to legally stay in Canada over the past 10 years has been successful thus far. Between September and December 2014 alone, eight applications from war resisters to stay in Canada as permanent residents, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds as well as spousal sponsorships, were denied, and four war resisters received removal orders.
This cooler welcome is due in part to the fact that these resisters are deserters "who volunteer to serve in the armed forces of a democratic country and simply change their mind to desert," as opposed to the Vietnam draft dodgers, who never chose to be involved with the military, immigration minister Jason Kenney explained in 2009. "And that’s fine, that’s the decision [the deserters] have made, but they are not refugees.”
But politics may also play a role. Some Iraq war resisters and their supporters attribute their struggles to the politics of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, which has led Canada since 2006. In 2010, the government issued an operational bulletin that flags war resisters as potential criminals, which has led critics to challenge the government’s claim that applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis.
The government maintains that the deserters may be inadmissible for refuge in Canada due to sections of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act which apply to anyone convicted of offenses outside Canada that could result in prison terms of 10 years or more if committed in Canada. Desertion in Canada is punishable by up to life in prison.
“Military deserters from the United States are not genuine refugees under the internationally-accepted meaning of the term,” Rémi Larivière, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, told the Toronto Star. “These unfounded claims clog up our system for genuine refugees who are actually fleeing persecution."
With a national election coming up in October, resisters are hopeful that a Liberal Party win could turn things around.
To avoid deportation in the meantime, some have turned to drastic measures. One former US soldier, Rodney Watson, has spent more than five years living in a small room inside a church, where he invoked the protection of sanctuary. As long as he stays within the walls of the church, Canada Border Services Agency officers cannot arrest him.
Watson and his fellow deserters also receive support from Canadian civilian groups such as the War Resisters Support Campaign, which was founded in 2004 to assist US military personnel who came to Canada seeking asylum from the 2003 Iraq war. A number of Vietnam draft dodgers who currently live in Canada have also been outspoken in urging the government to stop the deportation of Iraq war resisters.
One, Dick Cotterill, writes in a statement that he is "deeply troubled" by these deportations.
"The decision to face probable imprisonment and a criminal record can only be reached when one feels that the burden of participating in an illegal and immoral war is greater," Mr. Cotterill writes. "The fact that these young people have made it to Canada is a testament to their strength and mental fortitude. I say 'Let Them Stay.' They will make good citizens."