PMO’s interference in Syrian refugee process a problem: advocates

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
Canada Politics
Memorial held in Vancouver for Alan Kurdi, 3, buried in Syria

Some refugee advocates are demanding independent oversight after revelations that the Prime Minister’s Office interfered earlier this year with the processing of Syrian refugees.

Faisal Alazem, spokesman for the Syrian Canadian Council, says the Canadian government seems to want to choose certain kinds of refugees — the ones who are not Muslim.

“That bomb, when it’s falling on a house, it’s not distinguishing between religions,” Alazem tells Yahoo Canada News.

“You treat people based on their needs and their vulnerability. You don’t treat them based on what you prefer ideologically.”

The Globe and Mail reports that the PMO directed Canadian immigration officials to stop processing one of the most vulnerable classes of refugees for an undisclosed period of time last spring. The newspaper says the office also directed that all UN-referred refugees would require approval from Prime Minister Stephen Harper while an audit was conducted into all Syrian refugees referred by the United Nations this year and last.

The halt affected government-sponsored refugees and not privately-sponsored who comprise the vast majority of refugees to Canada — much to the chagrin of some refugee advocates.

“Since when did the Prime Minister’s Office become an expert on security issues?” Alazem asks. “To my knowledge, that’s the RCMP and CSIS and the embassies that have been doing the security review forever.”

The stop order came just a few months before the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s dead body on a Turkish beach spurred a public outcry over the lack of help the international community was offering the millions of Syrians who have fled war in their homeland.

Alazem says that while the PMO’s interference is shocking, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. The Conservative government has already made it clear that Canada is prioritizing refugees from “religious minorities,” meaning non-Muslims.

Both religious minorities and the more populous Muslim community must both be helped.

“Concentrating on one group and ignoring the other…it doesn’t make us humanitarians; it makes us ideologues,” Alazem says, adding that 50 per cent of refugees are children, regardless of their religion.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau calls it another example of the prime minister’s staff acting behind closed doors to manage controversial files.

“There are very few people left in this country who are surprised when we hear reports of the prime minister and his office meddling in things in a political and a non-transparent way,” Trudeau says.

Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says the interference from the PMO is politicizing the refugee process.

“That’s unacceptable because it can become discriminatory,” she tells Yahoo Canada News.

The United Nations’ convention on refugees is explicit — countries should not discriminate based on religion in the selection of refugees, she says. The Canadian government violated that tenet, she says.

“We are concerned that even now with the selection of refugees there is a kind of selection that they’re doing,” Rico says.

A security check is necessary, she says, but clearly there needs to be independent oversight of the process.

In the face of the public outcry after Alan’s death, alongside his brother and mother, the federal government eased the rules that had made Syrian refugee claims painfully slow in Canada. It also added staff on the ground overseas to process refugees and promised — if re-elected — to bring another 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, in addition to 10,000 already promised.

Rico would like to see those original 10,000 here by the end of the year.

“We believe they can make it this year and we will keep pushing for that,” she says.