Canada’s Immigration department had accumulated a backlog of nearly 7,500 applications from Syrian refugees by the time three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach at the beginning of September, the Citizen has learned.
Of those stuck in limbo, nearly 2,000 had been identified by the United Nations as being amongst the most vulnerable — and whose applications had been put on hold for at least several weeks by the Prime Minister’s Office in the spring.
The government did not respond to questions about why there was such a backlog, or how many files remain unprocessed today. But some are concerned it may be related to the government’s desire to prioritize some groups of Syrian refugees over others.
The refugee crisis emerged on the election campaign trail again Friday, after a CTV report said the Prime Minister’s Office had gone through refugee applicant files to make sure Christians and other minority groups were given priority to come to Canada.
The report alleged the Conservatives had prioritized groups with large communities already in Canada in the hopes of swaying those populations to vote for the party in the election. The report also alleged the PMO had pushed Citizenship and Immigration Canada to exclude Sunni and Shia Muslims.
During a campaign stop in B.C., Conservative Leader Stephen Harper defended the emphasis on ethnic and religious minorities, saying it is those groups that “are in fact being targeted by ISIS and its allies for extermination.”
“That includes Muslim minorities as well, and other groups,” Harper said. “But in the end, as we’ve been very clear, we don’t make the decisions on refugee selection. They’re not made by political people. Those decisions are made by arms-length bureaucrats under the policy.”
Sunni Muslims account for nearly three-quarters of all Syrians, while other Muslim groups such as Shias, Alawis and Ismailis represent another 16 per cent of the population. Christians and a small number of Jews represent the remaining 10 per cent.
While Harper has denied political staff personally intervened in any specific cases, he did admit to ordering an audit of the process for accepting Syrian refugees referred to Canada by the UN. The review, launched in June, included an assessment of security provisions and whether enough minorities were being accepted.
The Prime Minister’s Office ordered a halt to the processing of all Syrian refugee files referred to Canada by the UN High Commission for Refugees for the duration of the review. It’s unclear when the review was completed, when processing resumed, or what had changed in the process.
But by the beginning of September, more than 1,850 files referred to Canada by the UNHCR were waiting to be processed, as well as nearly 5,500 files from private sponsors. The review did not affect private sponsorships, which go through a different process.
Refugee advocates who were already critical of the government for having stopped the processing of UN-referred Syrian files for the review said the fact so many vulnerable refugees are sitting in the queue was troubling and showed the Canada could have been doing more if it wanted.
“It is a very big number, and should have been processed and could have been processed had the resources been in place and had there been political will to process them,” said Naomi Alboim, a former head of the federal government’s refugee resettlement program.
Some feared the backlog could be intentional. Figures obtained by the Citizen show between January and August, nearly 90 per cent of the 600 privately sponsored Syrians – those not referred by the UN and brought in by groups other than the government – were vulnerable religious or ethnic minorities.
In contrast, only about 20 — or six per cent — of the 350 referred by the UN and admitted into Canada fit that description. That’s because the UNHCR has resisted the government’s desire to prioritize ethnic and religious minorities. Its policy is to help the most vulnerable, no matter their religion or ethnic background.
Under fire in early September over the slow rate by which Syrian refugees were arriving, the government said it would take action to move things faster.