Time to change refugee law, says immigration committee chair

July 13, 2016

The Hill Times | Canada’s refugee system is failing persecuted peoples around the world who can’t flee their own country, say members of the House Immigration Committee.

The committee agreed unanimously to hold a series of meetings over the summer to study the protection of vulnerable groups, and much of the discussion will likely revolve around internally displaced persons (IDPs)—those who are persecuted and driven from their homes, but aren’t able to reach refugee camps outside of their country’s borders, and thus are not legal refugees.

“Everything [in Canada] is structured around refugees: the regulatory, the legal framework. And it doesn’t allow us to address the issue of IDPs,” said Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj (Etobicoke Centre, Ont.), the committee chair.

The committee hopes to have a report ready by September, complete with suggestions for legal, regulatory, or policy changes that could make it easier to bring vulnerable internally displaced people, including Iraqi Yazidis, to Canada, said Mr. Wrzesnewskyj, adding he hoped the report “could be used as a framework for our government to act on this humanitarian crisis.”

The committee was inspired to act after the United Nations released its report last month on the persecution of the Yazidi people in northern Iraq by ISIL (also known as ISIS, Daesh, and the Islamic State), say the committee chair and vice-chairs.

A pair of Yazidi women are among the witnesses scheduled to speak before the committee, as are representatives of the UN Human Rights Commission, office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and government officials. The committee also invited electronic submissions from the public up until July 13.

Responding to genocide

The government and opposition battled in the House last month over whether the government should label the ISIL campaign against Yazidis as a genocide, with most Liberals ultimately voting down the Conservative motion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) said the United Nations should decide what constituted a genocide.

Days later, after the UN released its report calling the violence against Yazidis a genocide, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion (Saint-Laurent, Que.) stood in the House to say his government would do so as well.

Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman captured and enslaved by ISIL , is expected to testify before the committee on behalf of Yazda, a global non-profit that supports the Yazidi community. Nafiya Naso, a Yazidi community leader in Winnipeg, is expected to testify on behalf of Operation Ezra, a fundraising group trying to bring persecuted Yazidis to Canada.

The committee is set to meet July 18 from 1 to 3 p.m. and again from 4 to 6 p.m. on the topic. During the earlier meeting, it is expected to hear from departmental officials and staff from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At the second meeting, the committee is set to listen to Conservative Senator Yonah Martin, University of Toronto professor Audrey Macklin, the director of the Office for Refugees of the Archdiocese of Toronto, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, and Tarjinder Bhullar, appearing as an individual.

The committee will examine the plights of other groups besides Iraqi Yazidis, including minority Sikhs in Afghanistan and minority Muslims in Myanmar, said the committee chair and vice-chairs.

The Canadian government has had difficulty accessing members of the Yazidi community, most of whom currently reside in camps in northern Iraq, David Manicom, an acting associate assistant deputy minister at Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, told the committee June 9 as it studied the government’s effort to resettle Syrian refugees.

The NDP and Conservative vice-chairs of the committee say the study will be a chance to examine and rectify some of the government’s failures to help vulnerable groups and to facilitate the private sponsorship and immigration of members of those groups by Canadians.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.), her party’s immigration critic, said she hopes the summer study on vulnerable groups will provide an opportunity to push the government to reconsider the way it evaluates people seeking refuge in Canada.

“My hope with this committee is that the government sees that religion and ethnicity are a factor in terms of refugee prioritization in the region,” she said.

“Canadians, we are very secular, [and] it’s difficult for us to understand that groups are persecuted based on their religion and their ethnicity, as very clearly laid out in that UN report,” she said.

The government does take religious persecution into consideration when processing visa applications, but does not keep statistics on the number of people allowed into Canada from a given religious group, Richard Wex, an associate deputy minister, told the committee June 9.

Ms. Rempel said the government should make a special effort to bring persecuted Yazidis to Canada more quickly. She pointed to a section of immigration legislation that allows the immigration minister to grant permanent resident status to applicants who don’t meet the government’s normal criteria if the minister believes there are humanitarian grounds for doing so.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.) says the government must do a better job of protecting LGBTQ individuals from persecution, and tracking its success at doing so.

Both Ms. Kwan and Ms. Rempel criticized the government’s handling of applications by private Canadians to bring persecuted people to Canada through private sponsorship, arguing it takes too long.

“That to me is a major failure of the government’s approach,” said Ms. Kwan.

There are “many obstacles” to bringing members of Iraq’s Yazidi community to Canada, said Michel Aziza, the lead organizer of an effort by members of Winnipeg’s religious communities to sponsor persecuted Yazidis.

Dubbed Operation Ezra, the effort by local Yazidi, Jewish, Mennonite, and Christian community organizations has raised more than $250,000. The group hopes to bring about 50 persecuted Yazidis to Canada through government sponsorship, but so far only two families—nine people in total—have arrived.

“It’s too slow, too little, too late,” said Mr. Aziza, who said he hopes the federal parties can undertake a co-operative effort to bring 1,000 Yazidis to Canada in the next month.

The office of Immigration Minister John McCallum did not respond to questions about some of the immigration critics’ comments by deadline.

The government is planning to send officials to Erbil in northern Iraq in the fall to help find ways to improve the way it processes visa applications from the area, the IRCC officials told the committee June 9.

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