Former immigration minister Chris Alexander is defending his government's approach to resettling Syrian refugees, denying that the Conservatives cherry-picked cases by prioritizing religious and ethnic minorities.
Every country working with the United Nations refugee agency on the humanitarian crisis in Syria operated under agreed-upon criteria for how to decide which refugees they'd accept, Alexander said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
The basic principle was to focus on the most vulnerable, but additional priorities had to be applied, Alexander said.
"To determine who was the most needy, who is the most vulnerable among four million people, you need to set some priorities," he said.
"And that's what the Syria core group has done from the beginning and that's what Canada's operation to resettle Syrian refugees has striven to do."
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Alexander, who lost his Toronto-area seat in last fall's election, was at the helm of the Immigration portfolio when the Conservatives announced last January they would increase the number of refugees accepted by Canada from 1,300 to 10,000.
But they also announced they would concentrate on bringing in members of religious and ethnic minorities, prompting accusations of an anti-Muslim bias and charges that the government was violating UN rules.
Most religious minorities in the region are from Christian groups. The UN also specifically asks countries not to use religion as a factor in determining who to take in.
'Areas of focus'
How exactly the Conservatives applied their approach was made clear this week via documents tabled in the House of Commons in response to a question from the NDP.
In them, the Immigration department said visa officers working in Lebanon and Jordan pulled cases that met the "areas of focus" criteria and processed those on a priority basis, while others were processed on regular timelines.
'The principle we respected all along was humanitarian need. There were a variety of priorities under that heading' - Former immigration minister Chris Alexander
Alexander said religion and ethnic status were not the sole area of focus and that they were working from a set of principles agreed upon by resettlement states.
A document he provided outlining those principles makes no mention of religion or ethnicity, but Alexander said they were understood to be part of a category described as people "belonging to a group for whom the authorities are unable to provide protection."
He also pointed to another document, available on the website of the British arm of the UN refugee agency.
"Refugees who face serious threats to their physical security, particularly due to political opinion or belonging to an ethnic or religious minority group, may also be prioritized," the document states.
In prioritizing religious minorities, the Conservatives were not picking a single faith, Alexander noted.
But applying that lens to the program reflected the nature of the conflict, which includes Islamic militants targeting Christian minorities or the Assad regime in Syria going after Sunni Muslims.
"This is the way this conflict is unfolding and those groups who face persecution because of their faith, or their ethnicity or their political views deserve special forms of protection," he said.
Alexander acknowledged there were some in the Conservative government who wanted to limit Canada's refugee program entirely to religious minority populations.
That didn't happen, he said.
"The principle we respected all along was humanitarian need. There were a variety of priorities under that heading," Alexander said.
"And if you look at people landing in Canada today, they are from every background and not all of them are from minorities."
The department — now known as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada — has not been able to provide statistics on the religious or ethnic background of refugees, saying they do not formally track that data.
Alexander said he was never given access to refugee files. Deciding who fit Canada's program — which also included resettling women and girls at risk, people with medical needs and older Syrians — fell to visa officers on the ground, he said.
An audit ordered by the former prime minister's office into those decisions wasn't something he felt was necessary, he said, but if a country is going to establish priorities then it makes sense to check to see if they are being met.
Immigration Minister John McCallum told reporters in Ottawa Friday that 15,000 Syrian refugees have now arrived.
He said he doesn't support a recent suggestion to connect government-assisted refugees in need of housing with private sponsorship groups whose refugees have not arrived yet, because it would involve an extra move for families already facing a challenging transition to life in Canada.