Liberals miss deadline to resettle ISIS survivors of rape, genocide due to flight restrictions
No new applications will be accepted under initiative that offered asylum to Yazidis and other ISIS victims
The Liberal government missed its target to resettle 1,200 Yazidis and other survivors of ISIS in Canada by the end of 2017 because of an extended ban on international flights at a key airport in northern Iraq.
According to figures provided to CBC News from Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees Canada (IRCC), the department has issued just over 1,200 visas to government-sponsored survivors, but as of Dec. 31, 2017, only 981 had arrived in Canada, 81 per cent of them Yazidi.
Another 64 arrived through private sponsorship.
IRCC also confirmed the intake will end once the rest of the 1,200 are resettled.
"While the department will not be receiving any new applications under this initiative, the remaining survivors of [ISIS] who are currently in process will continue to arrive in Canada in early 2018," IRCC spokeswoman Faith St. John told CBC News.
She said the intake was delayed due to travel restrictions that included a ban on international flights in and out of the Erbil International Airport, in the region where most Yazidis are located.
Iraq's aviation authority imposed the flight ban on Sept. 29, acting on orders from the Iraqi government against the Kurdish Regional Government after a vote in favour of independence. The three-month ban was subsequently extended, but reports this past weekend suggested a deal might be in the works.
The Iraq embassy in Ottawa said despite the international restrictions the airport in Erbil is open to domestic flights.
"All travellers, including Yazidis, can travel to Baghdad by using all means of transportation, like cars and/or airplanes, and then take international flights to elsewhere in the world," reads a note from the embassy.
Government action 'very slow'
Hadji Hesso, co-founder of the Canadian Yazidi Association, said the airport closure would not have been a problem if the government had acted faster. He said Canada could have brought 1,200 Yazidis here by July last year.
"I don't know why they waited until the end of the year to meet that target," Hesso told CBC News. "I think it was very slow, compared to other refugees, such as the 25,000 Syrian refugees. This should have been done in six months."
In mid-October 2017, the government said it was "on track" to meet its target and that about 800 ISIS survivors had already arrived from Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.
Hesso called it a "big disappointment" to learn the government will not be taking more applications. He had hoped the 2017 target of 1,200 would be doubled to 2,400 people in 2018 to help reunite Yazidi families in need.
"That's what we hoped to see, the number increased. People say ISIS has been defeated, but many of these people have no one left," he said.
IRCC said the flight ban caused delays because travel documents, exit permits and itineraries had been prepared based on the Erbil airport. Arrangements to transport people from another airport required additional and different documentation.
That process that took weeks and in some cases, months, St. John said.
"The department continues to ensure that the pace of departures enables Yazidi survivors to have time to wrap up their personal affairs," including a visit to Lalish, a village in northern Iraq that is home to the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith, she said.
On Oct. 25, 2016, MPs unanimously supported an opposition motion sponsored by Conservative MP and immigration critic Michelle Rempel to bring an unspecified number of Yazidi women and girls to Canada within 120 days. In February 2017, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced the target would be 1,200 by the end of 2017.
The Yazidis are a religious minority based mainly in northern Iraq, with a culture dating back 6,000 years. ISIS has targeted them in brutal attacks since August 2014.
In June 2016, a United Nations report declared that the slaughter, sexual slavery, indoctrination and other crimes committed against the 400,000 Yazidi amounted to genocide. Its finding that the militants had been systematically rounding up Yazidis to "erase their identity" meets the definition under the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.