In The Media

Canada shows its indifference

by Geoffrey Johnston (feat. Kyle Matthews)

The Whig
April 7, 2016

As Islamic extremists systematically target religious minorities in the Middle East and execute a ruthless campaign to wipe out Christians, Yezidis and other vulnerable groups, Canada seems shockingly indifferent to the plight of those facing genocide.

Kyle Matthews, a Montreal-based expert on mass atrocities prevention, religious extremism and international issues, is troubled by Canada's response to the unfolding genocide. "Are we helping the most vulnerable?" he wondered in a telephone interview.

"I think there are still some question marks about whether we are really helping the most vulnerable," continued Matthews, who is the senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University and a Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

Christians excluded

Many Syrian Christians are afraid to live in Muslim-dominated refugee camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Consequently, many Christians do not register with the UN agency.

If Syrian Christians don't feel safe or comfortable in UNHCR-run camps, what alternatives do they have? "Christian refugees live in privately rented accommodation," stated Kiri Kankhwende, a representative of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), in an email. According to Kankhwende, "Christian refugees are excluded from any support provided by UN and other international organizations because they live outside camps."

"Local Christian communities and churches, and some Christian organizations, have taken on the massive task of providing assistance to both Muslims and Christian refugees without discrimination," Kankhwende said. "Their resources are now exhausted due to the overwhelming numbers."

Does CSW reach out to Christian refugee families who are fearful of living in UNHCR refugee camps?

"CSW does indeed reach out to Christian families who are fearful of living in refugee camps," Kankhwende replied. "CSW maintains effective communication with those families and parties involved, including through fact-finding and solidarity visits, documenting testimonies of victims, interviewing eyewitnesses, liaising with church and community leaders and lobbying key international actors for assistance."

Canada no longer prioritizes the persecuted

The Trudeau government has yet to acknowledge that Assyrian Christians, Yezidis and other religious and ethnic minorities are targets of genocide in Iraq and Syria. Consequently, resettling Christian refugees is not a political priority for the Liberals.

Similarly, the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship has yet to explicitly acknowledge that Christians and others are targets of genocide. "For government-assisted refugees, generally speaking, individuals presenting vulnerabilities and compelling protection needs in the country of asylum are prioritized in accordance with the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook," Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada stated in an email. "Those in need of legal and/or physical protection are considered as one of the vulnerable groups Canada resettles, and the UNHCR does refer these cases to Canada for resettlement."

Under the Harper government, Canada prioritized persecuted refugees from Iraq and Syria for resettlement in Canada, a policy that the Liberals opposed in opposition and scrapped once they came to power.

Canada's current refugee policy is based on the work of the UNHCR. The UN agency identifies refugees for resettlement based on certain criteria, including persecution, the likelihood of being able to return home and single-family households.

Canada is resettling "a very minute, small percentage" of the refugee population that has fled Syria and Iraq, noted Matthews. "We can't resettle everyone."

However, the genocide-prevention expert does not understand the current government's aversion to prioritizing persecuted refugees. And he pointed out that there is nothing in refugee or international law that would prevent Canada from prioritizing a targeted group that "deserves additional protection" over "the average person in a refugee camp."

In addition, Matthews stated that many persecuted minorities in Iraq and in need of special protection "are not considered for resettlement by the Canadian government, because they are not Syrians." The situation of Iraqi Assyrians, Yezidis, and other ancient communities is especially dire.

Religious intolerance

Is the UNHCR doing enough to help Christians and Yezidis and other persecuted refugees?

"This is a big problem," Matthews replied. "I understand that the UNHCR is under enormous pressure and has no resources."

Religious persecution and intolerance are rampant in the Middle East and many Muslim-majority countries. And Matthews cites research conducted by the PEW Research Center that documents societal intolerance in the Muslim world.

For example, PEW published data in February 2015 that highlighted religious intolerance in Muslim-majority countries. The report, entitled Latest trends in religious restriction and hostilities, found that "social hostilities involving religion were highest across the Middle East and North Africa" in 2013.

PEW measured intolerance on its Social Hostilities Index, comparing regions around the globe. According to the report, the Middle East "remained well above the global median."

"A lot of the average people living in the Middle East have these ideas and actually carry them out against their neighbours, who are a different religion," Matthews said of religious bigotry. "This is proven and most likely explains why they [religious minorities] are not in these camps, or why they don't set up churches in many of these camps. They do not feel safe."

Flawed UNHCR, Canadian programs

Canada's reliance on UNHCR lists is one reason this country is not welcoming large numbers of the most vulnerable refugees, namely persecuted Christians and other religious minorities facing genocide.

Having made an extremely ambitious pledge during the federal election campaign to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015, the new Liberal government found itself scrambling to meet that commitment.

"The easy way to do that is go to the UNHCR and ask them for the list of the most vulnerable, process it, and get them over here," Matthews said. "And that was what was done."

Many Syrian Christian refugees remain outside of the UNHCR system. "For this reason, Christians have problems obtaining refugee status and, because of this, difficulty getting any form of help," said Father Andrzej Halemba, who heads up projects in the Middle East for Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic nongovernmental organization that assists persecuted Christians.

"The reality is, perhaps, the truly most vulnerable are even afraid to go to refugee camps run by the UN," Matthews asserted. "That means a lot of these people are just not able to be part of this generous resettlement program by the Canadian government. That, I think, is unfortunate."

Matthews said Kurdish families in Montreal have come to him seeking help for family members trapped in the Middle East. Many Kurdish refugees avoid UNHCR camps in Jordan or Lebanon, while others are stuck in Turkey, where the UNHCR does not operate. As a result, Matthews said, "they can't get access to resettlement."

"There is just no way for them to actually get in the Canadian resettlement channel," Matthews continued. And he noted that the Kurds are the West's most reliable partner in the battle to destroy ISIS, and yet Canada is doing little to resettle Kurdish refugees. "It just seems like there are some serious gaps in our refugee policy," he said.

What advice does Matthews have for the Trudeau government regarding genocide prevention, protecting the most vulnerable refugees, and applying the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine? "First and foremost, resettling refugees from one part of the world where they already have protection, to Canada, is not R2P," he said of the UN human rights doctrine that obliges the world to prevent mass atrocities.

Matthews recommends that the Liberal government "create an R2P focal point" within the government to guide Canadian policy on genocide prevention and civilian protection. "We have nobody with this responsibility right now, and we are not able to grasp prevention policies," he said.

"We're seeing entire religious minorities in the Middle East being wiped out," Matthews said. And yet Canada is not doing enough to save the victims of genocide. "I just don't get it."


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