The Prime Minister’s Office did not vet refugee applications for the most vulnerable classes of Syrian refugees this spring, says Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, and no applications were subject to his own direct approval or refusal.
“Political staff are never involved in approving refugee applications,” Harper told a packed room in Vancouver on Thursday afternoon.
Harper was responding to a report in Thursday’s Globe and Mail, which alleged that the PMO instructed immigration officials to stop processing refugee applications for vulnerable Syrians during the spring, a few months before the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The reason for the halt was not clear, but the Conservatives have confirmed that it was indeed ordered.
WATCH ABOVE: Conservative leader Stephen Harper responds to a question that his government is selecting refugees based on religion.
During that period, the Globe and Mail also reported, all UN-referred refugees were also subject to the direct approval of the prime minister.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander explained that a first wave of government-sponsored refugees was approved earlier this year by both the UN and immigration officials in Canada. They met all requirements to be admitted to Canada, and passed security checks.
It was then that the PMO ordered a “retrospective audit” of the first wave of refugees. It’s unclear what triggered that audit, although the Conservatives have been clear that they believe significant security concerns exist when dealing with Syrian refugees.
“This was a prudent step to ensure the integrity of our refugee referral system,” Alexander’s statement read. “The processing of Syrian Government Assisted Refugees resumed only after there was confidence that our procedures were adequate to identify those vulnerable persons in most need of protection while screening out threats to Canada.”
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Like Harper, Alexander maintained that at no time during the audit did the PMO ask for, or conduct, any vetting of individual refugees covered by the audit. It would have been impossible, he said, as the refugees had already been approved by immigration officials.
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Over the first eight months of 2015, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration issued visas to 308 UN-referred refugees from Syria. In that same period, over 1,500 refugees were sponsored privately.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair pulled no punches During a campaign stop in Toronto Thursday, calling the PMO’s actions “a shame on Canada.”
“We learned today that Stephen Harper intervened personally to stop the arrival of Syrian refugees,” Mulcair said.
“That is abject behaviour on the part of a Canadian prime minister.”
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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called the PMO’s refugee move another example of how Harper’s politics of “fear and division” and a distraction from Conservative failures on files like the economy.
“Mr. Harper over the past 10 years has … conflated the interests of the Conservative party of Canada with the actions and role of the government of Canada, which is supposed to serve all Canadians,” Trudeau said in Vaughan, Ont.
The Syrian refugee crisis has emerged as a hot button election issue in Canada, where public pressure mounted on political leaders to respond to the crisis.
Mulcair has vowed to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the 2015 Trudeau pledged to resettle 25,000 over the same period.
Harper has promised to bring in an additional 10,000 Syrians.
*With files from Andrew Russell, The Canadian Press