One of the most prominent voices in Quebec advocating for refugees has been that of Rivka Augenfeld.
From the arrival of Vietnamese Boat People to the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives, Augenfeld has been working and speaking out on their behalf and urging a compassionate and welcoming response.
Born near Graz Austria to Polish-Jewish parents who survived the Holocaust, Augenfeld grew up in an environment where community involvement and activism were integral parts of life whether it was in her parents’ parlour or at the Workmen’s Circle and Jewish Public Library. The family spoke Yiddish at home.
Augenfeld attended summer camp in the Catskills, Hemshekh meaning continuity, where children of families whose parents had been involved in the Jewish Labour Bund in Eastern Europe spent their summers. The Bund believed the long-term well-being of Jewish workers was tied to the liberation of the working classes in Europe through socialism, not Zionism.
Augenfeld and other camp graduates were inspired by these precepts and many went on to carry the torch for the principles of equality and social justice.
After studying at the Jewish People’s School, Outremont High and McGill, Augenfeld worked for the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services from 1974-91, alongside its founder, Dr. Joseph Kage. He created the Canadian Council for Refugees and since 1979, Augenfeld has worked there. She is a consultant and trainer in immigration and refugee issues. She continues volunteering at the Jewish Public Library to organize events, including co-chairing the Yiddish Programming Committee.
Reflecting her experience and commitment, she was a co-founder of the Montreal-based refugee aid and advocacy umbrella organization now called the Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes. She was president from 1985 to 2006 and a chief spokesperson.
Dec. 10 marks the 71st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Augenfeld will give a talk titled “Refugee rights are human rights” at a joint meeting of Canadian Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights and the Labour Zionist History Circle. It’s at 7 pm at the Gelber Centre of the Jewish Public Library, 5151 Côte Ste. Catherine.
Part of her message is that the Jewish community should be engaged in helping those seeking refuge here in much the same way as they did before and after the Holocaust, when desperate European Jews looked to Canada to escape persecution and rebuild their lives. “We should all adopt the highest credo: We used to help refugees because they were Jewish and now we help refugees because we are Jewish.”
The big issue in Canadian refugee policy concerns Canada being part of the Safe Third country Agreement with the U.S. since the end of 2004. Under the agreement, refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in unless they qualify for an exception to the agreement for family members, unaccompanied minors, document holders, or in the public interest.
In that context, the Canadian Council for Refugees, with support from the Canadian Council of Churches and Amnesty International, is challenging the designation of the US as a safe third country for refugees. Augenfeld has been a council member since 1979 and worked on several of its committees. It argues that sending refugee claimants back to the U.S. violates Canadian law, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s binding international human rights obligations.
The Canadian government has argued that the “the regime is lawful and meets its Charter and international law obligations.”
Not so, says the council, which argues that, “the refugee claimants that Canada turns away at our borders are exposed to grave risks of detention and maltreatment in the U.S. and refoulement (returning to a country where the person is likely to face persecution.)
“Refugee claimants (in the U.S.) are being detained indefinitely in conditions that are nothing short of cruel and unusual, simply for seeking protection,” the council states.
In addition, the U.S. administration “has issued transit bans targeting Muslims, instituted ‘zero tolerance’ policies targeting Central American refugees, separated children from their parents and detained them, refused entry to almost all people seeking asylum at the southwestern border (with Mexico).”
American authorities have also recently “rendered ineligible for asylum anyone who could have made a claim elsewhere before coming to the U.S.”
Suspending the Safe Third Country agreement could have “huge implications” for the Canada-U.S. relationship, immigration and refugee specialist Robert Falconer told Reuters. Some 50,000 people are said to have entered Canada through irregular means and filed refugee claims over the past three years.