Ma­nip­u­lat­ing refugee cri­sis

Toronto Star - - OPINION - Ha­roon Sid­diqui For­mer Star colum­nist and ed­i­to­rial page editor emer­i­tus Ha­roon Sid­diqui re­turns Thurs­days and Sun­days for the fed­eral elec­tion. sid­

The Harper gov­ern­ment has long re­sisted bring­ing in Syr­ian refugees, an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of whom are Mus­lims. But it has been keen on fast-track­ing Chris­tians, Yazidis and oth­ers from Syria and Iraq.

Its ra­tio­nale for the first is that with so many ex­trem­ist mili­tias op­er­at­ing there, ter­ror­ists could sneak in mas­querad­ing as refugees. Its ex­pla­na­tion for the sec­ond is that the Is­lamic State is tar­get­ing mi­nori­ties.

Both are rea­son­able propo­si­tions. But they also hide the gov­ern­ment’s ter­ri­ble record on refugees and pro­vide a cover for big­otry, that of the Harperites them­selves or of the Con­ser­va­tive base of fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tians and other right-wingers to whom the gov­ern­ment caters.

Harper is in­gen­u­ous when he re­jects “open­ing the flood­gates and air­lift­ing tens of thou­sands of refugees out of ter­ror­ist war zones with­out proper process.”

Who is ad­vo­cat­ing open­ing the flood­gates? He has merely been asked to do more than he has.

Who is sug­gest­ing that refugees not be screened for se­cu­rity? All asy­lum seek­ers are vet­ted by Cana­dian in­tel­li­gence agents work­ing in the re­gion, in co­op­er­a­tion with the se­cu­rity ser­vices of our al­lies.

Who is ar­gu­ing that refugees must be res­cued only from camps in Tur­key, Le­banon and Jor­dan? A ma­jor­ity of the four mil­lion Syr­ian refugees in ex­ile are scat­tered in cities and ru­ral ar­eas across the re­gion.

Harper is pan­der­ing to the dan­ger­ous stereo­type that all Mus­lims are po­ten­tial ter­ror­ists, whereas non-Mus­lims may be squeaky clean. In fact, Chris­tian and other non-Mus­lims have also been in­volved with the many ruth­less mili­tias in Syria and Iraq. They all need to be checked out, as se­cu­rity ex­perts have said.

As for cherry-pick­ing Chris­tian refugees, the Harper gov­ern­ment has been coy.

Through­out last fall, it re­mained mum on ru­mours that it was at war with the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees, which re­fuses to dis­crim­i­nate on the ba­sis of re­li­gion. Immigration Min­is­ter Chris Alexan­der kept dodg­ing re­porters. On Dec. 12, two dozen groups, in­clud­ing no­tably the Cana­dian Coun­cil of Churches, said that “it is com­pletely un­ac­cept­able and, in fact, ir­re­spon­si­ble to dis­crim­i­nate against refugees on the ba­sis of re­li­gion.” Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s Alex Neve said gov­ern­ment shenani­gans were “in some way, shape or form about the fact that the ma­jor­ity of Syr­ian refugees are Mus­lim.”

It was not un­til Jan­uary that Ot­tawa qui­etly let out, in back­ground brief­ing pa­pers, its pref­er­ence for non-Mus­lims, as well as women who faced sex­ual abuse, and gays and les­bians, as the gov­ern­ment’s three for­eign pol­icy pri­or­i­ties. And it was only last week that Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism Min­is­ter Jason Ken­ney fleshed out the de­tails.

He told CBC News that the Yazidis, Druze, Syr­iac Catholics, Chaldean Chris­tians and Is­maili Mus­lims — vic­tims of the Is­lamic State — are re­luc­tant to seek refuge in the UN-op­er­ated camps be­cause of Mus­lim hos­til­ity. They thus do not have ac­cess to in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian aid. So Ot­tawa wants to help them (per­haps through the $100 mil­lion fund an­nounced since). More cru­cially, it wants to fund the “many pri­vate spon­sor­ship or­ga­ni­za­tions in Canada who have long lists of (mi­nor­ity refugees) that they’d like to spon­sor but do not have ad­e­quate fi­nan­cial back­ers.”

The Syr­ian Cana­dian com­mu­nity is out­raged at Ken­ney’s sug­ges­tion that Mus­lim Syr­ian refugees in camps are dis­crim­i­nat­ing against non-Mus­lims, an al­le­ga­tion with­out in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion.

Malaz Se­bai, a Syr­ian Cana­dian work­ing with Life­line Syria, a group try­ing to spon­sor Syr­ian refugees, told me: “We’ve been ask­ing for fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion for two years but the gov­ern­ment hasn’t budged. Now they are giv­ing pri­or­ity to cer­tain groups. This con­tra­venes Cana­dian val­ues, and all no­tions of equal­ity and fair treat­ment.”

Ken­ney was also in­stru­men­tal in giv­ing pri­or­ity to Chris­tians among the 20,000 Iraqi refugees brought to Canada.

As Neve says, “Clearly there’s noth­ing wrong at all with of­fer­ing pro­tec­tion to refugees from per­se­cuted eth­nic and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties. Such groups con­tinue to ex­pe­ri­ence se­ri­ous hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions.

“It is also clear, how­ever, that Syria’s ma­jor­ity Sunni Arab Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion has suf­fered greatly, both be­fore and dur­ing the four plus years of the coun­try’s ter­ri­ble civil war.

“This is not a hu­man rights cri­sis that sim­ply comes down to the ma­jor­ity hav­ing bru­tal­ized the mi­nor­ity. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one has suf­fered and con­tin­ues to suf­fer.”

UNHCR is the best judge of who is most vul­ner­a­ble.

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