Canada urged to find ways to rescue world’s ‘most vulnerable’
August 24, 2016
The Star | Mirza Ismail is angry and frustrated over what he calls Canadians’ indifference to the plight of Yazidi refugees persecuted by Daesh terrorists in northern Iraq.
Why is the voice of the community, which only has an estimated 200 families across Canada, being ignored, he asks, while almost 30,000 Syrian refugees were plucked up and resettled by Ottawa from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in a matter of months?
“I don’t know why we are not listened to by our government,” said Ismail, chair of the Toronto-based Yezidi Human Rights Organization International. “Our women and girls are kidnapped, tortured and raped. They are the most vulnerable people, but get little attention.”
The parliamentary standing committee on immigration recently held a series of hearings listening to dozens of witnesses as part of its study to come up with immigration measures to protect the world’s most vulnerable. A final report is expected to come out in the fall.
“The targeting of groups for ethnic cleansing is an ongoing reality in parts of the world — and then there is genocide. Every anniversary of the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and the Armenian genocide, we invoke the words,” said Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, the committee chair.
“The importance and urgency of the topic was recognized by all committee members. We’ll be examining ways for Canada to support targeted groups, including accelerated resettlement and other humanitarian measures.”
While advocates all agree Canada needs to do more and act quicker, how to achieve that remains a contentious issue.
“The Canadian Council for Refugees shares the horror felt over the human rights abuses suffered by the Yazidis, as well as by many other religious and ethnic minorities,” said Janet Dench, the council’s executive director.
“At the same time, we need to be careful about targeting specific groups, as it can compromise equitable treatment. Often there are individuals at extreme risk who do not fit within a specified group, but are just as deserving of priority consideration.”
What criteria officials should rely on to assess vulnerability is another operational challenge.
“How can you say this person is more vulnerable than the other?” asked Chris Morrissey, who leads the Vancouver-based Rainbow Refugee, voluntary group that supports people seeking refugee protection due to persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity and HIV status.
“I don’t think it is acceptable to make comparisons. Vulnerable people are vulnerable people.”
In fact, the Liberals’ ambitious plan to prioritize Syrian refugees in the Middle East has hit a sour note among other refugee groups and their supporters who felt the Syrians were jumping the queue with the sanction of the Canadian government, pushing everyone else further back in the line.
Although the refugee resettlement pie is much bigger this year, many of the sponsorship agreement holders still worry about slices being carved off with the restrictive caps Ottawa imposed on new sponsorship applications they can submit each year.
“While no one wants to get into the morbid science of comparing one refugee’s plight with another, there are many who wonder why someone who has been waiting for more than five years may need to continue to wait while others appear to be zipping through the process because they are prioritized,” said Brian Dyck, of Mennonite Central Committee Canada.
One of the challenges in resettling groups such as the Yazidis is that most of them are still trapped within their home country of Iraq as internally displaced people, hence by the United Nations’ definition are not refugees and are ineligible for resettlement to countries like Canada.
Between 2002 and 2012, Ottawa had a program known as the “source-country” class designed to resettle internally displaced people whose governments failed to protect them. However, eligibility was limited to people from a handful of war-torn countries.
It was scrapped by the former Conservative government because it was dangerous for Canadian officials to enter these countries to process applicants and, diplomatically, resettling foreign nationals from their home country was seen as an affront to other states.
Canada needs a program that can respond quickly to changing world events, said New Democrat immigration critic Jenny Kwan, who, along with her Conservative counterpart, Michelle Rempel, has urged Immigration Minister John McCallum to expedite resettlement of Yazidis.
To shorten processing time, Kwan asked officials to waive the additional level of screening and bring people to Canada following screening by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. As an alternative, Canada could bring UNHCR-screened refugees to Canada under temporary visas and provide permanent residence upon completion of secondary screening.
“Extraordinary events demand above and beyond actions, and Canada is well positioned to be a leader on this. It merely requires the political will to act,” said Kwan. “We cannot afford to wait.”
While political will is needed, politicizing what group is deemed more vulnerable and deserves quicker resettlement is something to be avoided, said the refugee council’s Dench.
“Who we should resettle should not be based on the government’s preference of the day. We need a principled response to these crises. We recognized the problem with the source-country program, but it should not be eliminated but reformed,” said Dench.
“We don’t want it to be a competition, depending on who has a better lobbyist and better access to the media. What we need is to evaluate vulnerability based on an individual’s connection to the situation and not on the basis of membership to a group.”
Toronto lawyer Chantal Desloges said current immigration law already allows officials to apply discretion in exceptional circumstances, and all the government needs to do in response to ever-changing global refugee crises is issue directives to “encourage” the application of discretion toward a particular group facing immediate threats.
However, Paul Clarke, of Action Réfugiés Montréal, said the bottom line of Canada’s response to protecting the vulnerable comes down to its capacity to respond.
“The matter is when you prioritize a group, you are de-prioritizing someone else,” said Clarke. “When you see a poor person, you don’t say, ‘Let me see if I can find somebody poorer before I help you.’”