Identifying Yazidis seeking resettlement to Canada a 'complicated process'

Resettling Yazidi women and girls in Canada has a unique set of challenges, but one of the biggest is identifying those in most urgent need who are willing to relocate from northern Iraq, says the UN refugee agency's representative to Canada.

Jean-Nicolas Beuze said Canada's program narrowly targets a group of people who are close to their community, and have not necessarily revealed their experience of rape or sexual slavery to their own family members, let alone community service providers.

"It can put them at extreme risk to come out as victims of sexual violence," he said in an interview with CBC News.

Canada has committed to bringing in 1,200 Yazidis and other victims of ISIS, an effort Beuze calls "commendable." More than 400 had arrived by Feb. 22, most of them from camps in Turkey and Lebanon, while the remainder are to come primarily from northern Iraq.

They are not considered refugees, but internally displaced in their own country because of acts of genocide by ISIS.

Despite suffering horrific abuse, many have no interest in seeking safe haven in Canada, and some who do find refuge here will eventually decide to return home.

"It's a personal choice," said Beuze. "It is not up to us to decide if the person will be better off in Canada or under plastic sheet tents anywhere in the Middle East. We leave the choice to the victim and we should not put pressure just because a quota has been decided somewhere else."

'Complicated process'

Many of the Yazidi women have extended and complex family links, and many hope that they will eventually be reunited with relatives stolen by ISIS.

Some do not want to relocate far away to a country with a different language, culture and climate.

"It's a complicated process to find people who are willing to come to Canada because of all of those issues," he said.

"Some want to close the door on their past and get as far away as possible from the place where they have been violated. Others, because of the strong link to the communities and cultural norm will want to be able to return or never leave and remain.

"It's really on an individual basis, case by case."

The government's program is focusing on those for whom resettlement is the best option because they may need specialized services or can't reintegrate back into their communities. The program is operating under a low profile to protect the privacy of a very vulnerable group, the government said.

Lack of information 'disturbing'

Majed El Shafie, founder of human rights advocacy group One Free World International and a member of the newly formed Canada-Yazidi Action Coalition, praised the federal government for showing leadership but questioned the cloak of secrecy around the operation.

"We don't know the process. We don't know if they're really choosing the most vulnerable or not. We don't know if we can help or not, or how we can help," he said. "So the lack of information is really disturbing to our organization."

Many leaders in the close-knit Yazidi community in Canada, clustered in Winnipeg, London, Ont., and the Toronto area, were not aware of the resettlement operation underway. 

El Shafie said Canada should work more closely with NGOs on the ground in collaboration with the UNHCR to improve the identification and selection process. He said partners on the ground have identified hundreds of Yazidis who want to come to Canada, but many of them are reluctant to deal with UN representatives.

There is worry about being stigmatized over being a rape victim, among other concerns, he said.

El Shafie believes the Yazidi women who do make it to Canada will want to stay.

"This is not the first time the Yazidis have faced persecution, and if they turn back it will not be the last time," he said. "I think they would like to start a new life in a safe country where they can worship, where there is no discrimination against them, no stigma towards the victims."