VANCOUVER, B.C. - As former Soviet KGB employee Mikhail Lennikov settles into his new home at a Vancouver church to avoid deportation, another pastor who's witnessed the sanctuary experience first hand has some advice: Keep busy.

Research by a Canadian authority on sanctuary suggests Lennikov, who was to be deported to Russia last Wednesday after 12 years in Canada, could be calling Vancouver's First Lutheran Church home for a long time.

"He needs to find as many things as possible to occupy his time and his energies," says Rev. John Marsh, who sheltered Iranian refugee Amir Kazemian in his Anglican church in Vancouver for almost three years.

"You've got a lot of time on your hands."

The 50 previous sanctuary cases in Canada since 1983, involving about 300 people in all, have averaged about 10 months, according to figures compiled by Prof. Randy Lippert of the University of Windsor.

But the 11 cases in the period 2005-2008 have averaged about 655 days - almost two years.

Lennikov was ruled inadmissible because he admitted to being a low-level member of the KGB in the 1980s. He claimed he was pressured into joining and did little more than Japanese translation.

But Lippert's figures suggest chances have diminished that the government will change its mind about Lennikov as a security threat.

Up to the end of 2003, 73 per cent of sanctuary incidents ended with the refugee being allowed to stay in Canada or return after leaving briefly to reapply for entry. That's dropped to 57 per cent in the seven cases resolved since January 2005.

"Essentially, it has been successful until more recently," says Lippert, author of the book "Sanctuary, Sovereignty, Sacrifice," published in 2006.

Lippert says the figures, from an article to be published soon in the journal Refuge, suggest the government is more prepared to wait out sanctuary seekers.

"One of the most significant changes, I guess really since the Conservatives came to power, is that people can expect to stay much longer in sanctuary in order to have their case resolved successfully," he says.

The idea of a fugitive taking refuge in a holy place goes back to ancient times and is found in many cultures, including First Nations.

But the modern concept of sanctuary is rooted in the Christian tradition.

In medieval England, for instance, a criminal or someone at odds with the king could not be touched within the bounds of a church or churchyard.

However, the refuge was meant to be short-term. Fugitives were not given food or water. If they could negotiate a way out, they were often required to "abjure" the kingdom - leave the country - and were branded with the letter A on their thumbs.

Refugees today are fed and housed but live in a bureaucratic limbo hoping publicity and pressure will change the government's mind.

Supporters say it remains an option because Ottawa has not followed through on a promise to institute a merit-based appeal system from decisions of the one-member Immigration Refugee Board panel.

"A lot of people suggest this is sort of the ad hoc informal appeal," says Lippert.

Sanctuary aims to get a review of a refugee's claim or a ministerial exemption based on compassionate and humanitarian grounds, such as family ties in Canada.

But the facts are the last element in a sanctuary campaign, says Francisco Rico Martinez, co-executive director of FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto.

The public's reaction to media reports, the government's political response and the backing of credible refugee advocates are the main factors, he says.

"The review of the case for me is really the last thing that you manage to do after you put together the first three things," says Martinez, who's been involved in up to 10 sanctuary cases.

Often sanctuary seekers belong to the congregations, but Lippert says some, like Kazemian, have supporters who try different churches hoping to find a refuge.

Marsh was pastor of St. Michael's Church in east Vancouver when Kazemian sought sanctuary there in 2004, fearing he'd be persecuted in Iran because he'd been a democratic activist and, worse, had converted to Christianity.

Kazemian was 90 minutes from deportation when he was brought to the church, forcing Marsh to make a quick decision that was ultimately supported by his congregation.

"Ideally, that's not how you want to go about it," he says now.

Kazemian's home was a largely unused chapel off the church's main sanctuary - about 22 square metres.

"It was both his bedroom and his work room," says Marsh.

"There was always practical difficulties that had to be worked out, especially as things dragged on. There was at times a little bit of friction around his sense of privacy and all of that."

Sanctuary is a strange limbo after years of desperate struggle to remain in Canada.

Kazemian kept busy fixing electronic equipment. His mother, a landed immigrant, visited and people made an effort to keep him engaged in the struggle against hopelessness and despair, says Marsh.

"Hope is a hard thing to maintain in the midst of all of that," he says. "That being said, it's absolutely vital."

For some, it's a losing battle.

Laibar Singh, who was in Canada on false papers, spent about a year in sanctuary at two Vancouver-area Sikh temples to avoid deportation to India. While living there, he suffered an illness that left him a quadriplegic and supporters feared he would not receive proper care back home.

But Singh eventually gave up and returned voluntarily to India last year.

Sanctuary seekers generally have not been arrested in their refuges, though Canada Border Services Agency says it treats each case individually.

There was a notable exception in 2004 when Algerian Mohamed Cherfi, who'd come to Canada from the United States in 1998, was snatched from a Quebec City church and handed over to U.S. authorities.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Montreal-based Canadian Council of Refugees, says the reason given was Cherfi had not informed the court he'd changed his address. But she believes it was because he'd participated in a demonstration in front of then-immigration minister Judy Sgro's office.

Lippert also pointed the unpublicized 1998 expulsion of a group of migrants in Montreal from what police deemed was not a legitimate church.

Kazemian was also arrested by Vancouver police at St. Michael's after he reported a suspected break-and-enter at the church.

A computer check by the responding officer turned up a federal warrant for Kazemian and he was taken into custody to await deportation.

He was freed a week later after a review of his case, underway before his arrest, legalized his status in Canada.

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