OTTAWA (CCN) — Refugee advocates welcome Canada’s pledge to help Yazidis facing genocide but express concerns the program may overshadow needs of refugees elsewhere in the world.
On Oct. 25, the House of Commons unanimously supported a Conservative motion to recognize the ISIS genocide against Yazidis and to provide asylum for Yazidi women and girls within 120 days.
Martin Mark, the director of the Toronto archdiocese’s Office for Refugees, said in an email he believes the government decision came as a result of lobbying and advocacy work that included his office’s mission trip to Kurdistan a few months ago.
“So, I am happy that we are at this point, but of course things are not clear yet and I have serious concerns if the preparations are not adequate then this special program can be very challenging,” he said. “If the government co-operates with the civic society — and with the community — it can create a good example for overcoming difficulties and helping those most in need.”
“There is no other group in the refugees’ world that would need more help than the Yazidis,” he said.
Immigration Minister John McCallum has not yet revealed specific numbers. “I think it is wonderful as a Canadian that while we different parties have different views on many things, we share the view that it is right to welcome the vulnerable people to our country,” he told journalists after the vote. He was joined by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, who spearheaded the motion, and Yazidi human rights activist and former ISIS captive Nadia Murad.
“Over the last year, Yazidi women have been abandoned in captivity with ISIS and there’s many that need to be saved right now,” said Rempel. “So as we move forward, my hope is that the government will act, will set specific targets and quotas for the amount of Yazidis which come to Canada, will seek international consensus to establish safe zones to keep persecuted minorities such as the Yazidis safe in Iraq and will establish special programs to assist Yazidi women and survivors of genocide when they come to Canada.”
“Today was a very important day for me as a victim of ISIS,” Murad said through an interpreter. As she saw parliamentarians standing to vote, she said, “I felt at that moment ISIS was losing something in that very critical moment. . . . Because ISIS never thought their slaves will one day come out and will be speaking against them.”
Last July the House of Commons Citizenship and Immigration Committee held hearings on vulnerable populations such as Yazidis, those fleeing North Korea, and others. Mark appeared before the committee to make a plea for the Yazidis as the most vulnerable group who, unlike persecuted Christians, lack a worldwide network to support them. He also spoke of preparations for private sponsorships that could be activated on their behalf.
But some refugee advocates worry about fast-tracking yet another group, when problems created by bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees in a short time-frame have not been addressed.
“Obviously, it’s a good thing people are paying attention to human rights issues,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, in an interview from Montreal.
But Dench expressed concern about the “politicization” of determining which refugees and people get settled in Canada. If every time gross human rights abuses create a demand for government to resettle people within a few months, the government is going to have to redirect resources to handle it, she said. Meanwhile, many African refugees face processing times of over 70 months.
“These are just extraordinarily long processing times,” she said. With extra effort to bring in Yazidi refugees, “does that mean people in Africa waiting for five years already are going to have to wait an extra few months because Yazidis are being bumped to the front of the queue?” Dench asked.
Carl Hétu, national director of CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association), said the government decision is a good one, but more needs to be done.
“Many organizations and churches believe that Christians, Yazidis and other minorities should be recognized as refugees and the fact the Canadian government is recognizing this is, I think, a good thing,” he said. “But if you recognize the Yazidis you have to recognize the other minorities like the Christians as well.”
His organization and the Catholic Church in Canada have highlighted concerns about Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities who were displaced inside Iraq when ISIS invaded Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in 2014.
“These people have been living in very harsh conditions since then,” he said. “They are not recognized as refugees because they did not leave Iraq but moved within Iraq.”
Because they are not classified as refugees, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) does not give them the same level of service, so they rely on NGOs and church-related organizations like CNEWA for their support, he said.
“Many have told us they will never go back to Mosul or the Nineveh Plain no matter what happens,” he said. “They have only two options: to stay in Kurdistan or to leave Iraq altogether.”
“In that sense, those minorities in Iraq should be given a choice,” he said. “If one of those choices is to come to Canada, they should be able to have that choice. They are victims of war.”
Like Dench, however, Hétu said the Canadian government cannot show compassion “at the expense of other groups from other regions that have been waiting a long time to come to Canada and live in dire situations, like Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, and in Sudan,” who are “totally forgotten by the international community.”
Earlier in October, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Douglas Crosby of Hamilton, wrote the immigration minister about concerns those in the refugee sponsorship community have about how long it is taking for many groups to receive their refugee family. Groups leased properties, expecting the refugees to arrive within a couple of months, and many are still waiting, and spending scarce resources on rent, he said.
“The bishops are right to ask the government to be more systematic and balanced in their approach,” Hétu said.
Meanwhile, a coalition of forces is trying to retake Mosul from ISIS, and Hétu fears the battle — if it lasts a few more months — could create another 1.2 million misplaced persons, mainly Sunnis. There are 3.5 million displaced people in Iraq already, according to UN figures, and CNEWA is reaching out to about 100,000 who have already settled in the Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq.
A new influx of refugees will “affect the limited resources we already have for the displaced in the country, and create more tensions among the displaced,” he said.
“Even if Mosul is liberated from ISIS, the big question everybody has is what’s the plan for the reunification of Iraqis to make sure the Sunni, the Kurds and the Shiites can build a unified Iraq,” he said. “There’s no plan right now. Until there’s a plan there won’t be a place for the Christians and the minorities in Iraq.”