Canada: Only a refuge for religious minorities?

By Kathryn Teeluck

Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh leaders in Canada stand up for Syrian Muslims seeking asylum

On December 12th, CBC News reported that the government is considering prioritizing religious minorities from Syria when deciding which refugee claims to approve. Such a policy would leave Sunni Muslims, who compose the majority of the Syrian population, without any chance of resettlement to Canada, despite the clearly high risks they face as a result of the conflict.

In response to this proposed action, 25 leaders of various faith communities and organizations across Canada joined together to support a statement by the Canadian Council for Refugees urging the government not to discriminate against refugees based on religion. The statement included signatories from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh organizations.

In particular, these faith leaders stated that Canada should take a lead role in emphasizing our common humanity in cases where conflicts are rooted in sectarian divides.

Last week, the government finally revealed the number of sponsored Syrian refugees resettled in Canada. Out of its original pledge of 1300, a total of 457 have actually arrived – 294 sponsored by the government and 163 sponsored privately. To put these figures into context, there are currently an estimated 3.8 million Syrian refugees, and several humanitarian organizations have called on Canada to accept at least 10 000.

As Canadians, we take pride in our rich history of welcoming refugees from all over the world. A recent article in The Toronto Star points to Canada’s strong tradition of providing a safe haven for desperate people fleeing unimaginable horrors – yet our response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been inexplicably lacking.

Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada expressed his concern at a press conference on December 5th, stating, “There are many who have raised the concern that if this was not a large population of Muslim refugees, would we be seeing a different response? I do not want to believe that that is all at the heart of why we’re seeing such a miserly response from Canada. But because there is no other explanation right now, that hangs there.”

While attempting to address these allegations during Question Period in the House of Commons on Friday, the parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister, Costas Menegakis, seemed to contradict himself, first stating, “To suggest that we are only going to focus on the one group of people is categorically false,” and then proceeding to declare, “We will prioritize persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, those who demonstrate they are at risk, and we will make no apologies for that.”

If the government chooses to overlook highly vulnerable applicants solely on the basis of religion, it will in effect be saying that certain lives (in this case, those of Muslims) are not as worthy as others. Such a message is completely contrary to any standard of humanitarian ideals.

Already this move has been roundly denounced. Canadian Council for Refugees President Loly Rico stated, “If true, this would be outrageous. It is completely unacceptable and, in fact, irresponsible to discriminate against refugees on the basis of religion. It goes against the fundamental principles of refugee protection. Refugees must be selected for resettlement according to need.”

The inter-faith unity of the CCR statement should serve as an illustration to the government that its approach is universally condemnable. However, whether this public opposition will influence the government’s action on the resettlement of Syrian refugees remains to be seen.

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