Conservatives’ Syria refugee response labelled as ‘discrimination’

Syrian refugee children walk past tents at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese Town of Zahleh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Dec. 2.
Syrian refugee children walk past tents at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese Town of Zahleh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Dec. 2. Hussein Malla/AP Photo

The government of Stephen Harper has been under fire from critics for failing to to do enough to resettle Syrian refugees, but opponents are now slamming the Conservatives for being selective in choosing which refugees will go to the front of the line.

Facing questions from the NDP in the House of Commons on Friday, the parliamentary secretary for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration was unapologetic when he confirmed religious minorities, who have fled Syria’s brutal civil war and the spread of the militant group ISIS, will be the first priority when it comes to bringing Syrian refugees to Canada.

“We will prioritize persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, those at demonstrated risk, and we will not apologize for that,” said Parl. Secretary Costas Menegakis. “We have seen countless examples, Mr. Speaker, in recent years of people being persecuted… because of their religious beliefs.

“To suggest that we are only going to focus on one group of people is categorically false,” Menegakis said before calling the NDP’s criticisms “shameful.”

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Menegakis didn’t specify which religious minorities the government would “prioritize,” but his comments were a bit of a flip flop from what he said last week.

“We don’t look at refugees or evaluate cases of refugees based on people’s religious beliefs or backgrounds,” he said Dec. 5 in response to claims Canada was dragging its heels on accepting more refugees because the majority are Sunni Muslim.

READ MORE: United Nations counting on Canada to provide aid to Syrian refugees

Following Menegakis’ comments on Friday, the NDP and Liberals accused the government of cherry-picking refugees.

“The barrel bombs that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has been dropping do not discriminate whether you’re Sunni, Shia, Christian or another ethnic group,” NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar said Friday. So the question is, why is this government discriminating when it comes to Syrian refugees?”

Liberal MP Marc Garneau said he sees the move as “discrimination.”

“I don’t care what religion they’re from,” said  Garneau. “If their need is great and Canada has pledged to take refugees, they should be accepted not on the basis of which religion they belong to.”

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The need isn’t just great – it’s desperate.

There are more than 3.2 million Syrian refugees, from all religious groups, registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighbouring countries, with Turkey and Lebanon taking in more than 1 million people each. A further 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced.

Map of where Syrian refugees have fled to during Syria’s 3 1/2-year civil war.
Map of where Syrian refugees have fled to during Syria’s 3 1/2-year civil war. Syria Regional Refugee Response/UNHCR

Meantime, more than 200,000 have been killed since the conflict began.

UN agencies, particularly the World Food Program (WFP) have been overwhelmed by the crisis. The WFP announced Dec. 1 it had to suspend its food voucher program for 1.7 million Syrian refugees, saying it immediately required US $64 million to support Syrian refugees this month alone.

READ MORE: Baird says Canada has no plans to expand ISIS campaign to Syria

For humanitarian agencies, the notion of being selective in this humanitarian crisis is concerning.

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“The cardinal principal when it comes to refugee protection is that those who are in the greatest need, those who are the most vulnerable, are the ones who should be protected,” Amnesty International Canada secretary-general Alex Neve told Global News on Friday. “That should be Canada’s focus.”

READ MORE: For nearly 600 migrants, harrowing sea journey on crippled cargo ship ends on Greek island (Nov. 27)

Canada promised to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of this year, but so far only 457 have made it here — 294 who were assisted by the Canadian government and 163 who were privately sponsored.

The Government of Canada has technically met its commitment, having promised to settle 200 people, through the UN, while the remaining 1,100 were allotted to private groups. But those applications still have to be approved by the government — a process that can take years.

Amnesty International, last week, called the world’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis “pitiful” and encouraged supporters to lobby the federal government to honour the Refugee Convention and “open the door” to Syrian refugees.

READ MORE: Auditor: delays dogged Syrian relief projects

But, the new focus on religious minorities is alarming for Neve.

“I think this statement today that there is going to be some prioritizing of religious minorities only adds to the concern that Muslim refugees may find that there is less options for them for resettlement to Canada,” he said. “I am deeply troubled as a Canadian and as a human rights activist and someone concerned about refugees that we have not seen a meaningful and generous response from Canada to this resettling crisis.”

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By comparison to some European countries, Canada is lagging.

Sweden, for example, opened its doors to more than 30,000 Syrians since the civil war began in 2011 and has given many of them permanent residency. Germany has taken in some 80,000 Syrian refugees, 20,000 of whom were through a UN resettlement program, Al Jazeera reported.

UNHCR, at a meeting in Geneva on Tuesday, called on 28 countries to resettle a combine 100,000 refugees —including the 2013 commitment to resettle 62,000 people — in the next two years. Amnesty International wants Canada to commit to resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in that time.

The Ottawa Citizen reported officials at Citizenship and Immigration Canada previously informed Minister Chris Alexander that “Canada could accept 3,000 more government-assisted refugees in 2015, 2,700 in 2016 and 4,700 in 2017.”

With files from Shirley Engel and Bryan Mullan