Canada plans to resettle 1,200 Yazidi refugees and other survivors of ISIS by the end of this year.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced today that nearly 400 survivors have already arrived in Canada in the last four months since the House of Commons unanimously supported a Conservative motion that called on the government to provide asylum to an unspecified number of Yazidi women and girls.
Of those, about 74 per cent are Yazidi.
Canada has been given consent from the Iraq and Kurdish regional governments, which are supporting and co-operating with the plan, Hussen said.
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The motion recognized that ISIS, also called Daesh, is committing genocide against the Yazidi people and holding many of the group's women and girls as sex slaves.
Hussen said many of the newcomers will have far greater needs than other refugees who have come to Canada.
"Many have experienced unimaginable trauma and vulnerability, both physical and emotional, and many will have unique physical, psychological and social needs, such as trauma counselling," he told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday.
Survivors arriving at 'controlled pace'
The survivors have been arriving on commercial flights at a "controlled pace" to avoid over-burdening support services. The federal government will also work with provincial, territorial and municipal governments to ensure unique ongoing needs are met.
Although the motion referred only to providing asylum to Yazidi women and girls, the 1,200 refugees will include male family members. Hussen said ISIS also deliberately targets young boys, so the program will help resettle all child survivors of ISIS.
The government will also facilitate private sponsorships of Yazidi refugees, he said.
The program has so far been kept under tight wraps for privacy and security reasons, leading to several assertions that no Yazidis had yet been brought in. Hussen said the initiative is in keeping with Canada's tradition of offering protection to refugees who are the most vulnerable and the government wanted to take the time to get it right.
The program is expected to cost $28 million.
Dawn Edlund, associate assistant deputy minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said the government is carefully avoiding language that could lead to revictimization, and publicly releasing any details that could put other relatives still in captivity at risk.
"We are being very cautious with this population as opposed to the more open approach we used with the Syrian operation," she said, adding there would not be similar media opportunities to meet planes or interview refugees.
Preserving Yazidi culture
The Yazidi people are "an integral part" of Iraq's society and it's important to preserve that, Hussen said, adding that's why the government focused on a small number of people for whom resettlement is the best option.
He said the government is taking lessons from Germany, which resettled more than 1,000 ISIS survivors over the course of a year, on how to work safely in northern Iraq.
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"We know from the German experience this involves working in an extremely volatile and dangerous environment, so the security and safety of our personnel, as well as the survivors of Daesh themselves are of paramount importance to us," he said.
Hussen also reassured Canadians that safety and security would not be compromised, with each refugee interviewed and screened with medical and criminal checks.
'Dehumanized' campaign debate
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel, who sponsored the motion passed in Parliament last fall, said she specifically left out a targeted number because the debate had become "dehumanized" during the 2015 election campaign, where she said all stripes engaged in "one-upmanship."
She said Parliament, and Canadians at large, will debate whether 1,200 is an appropriate number.
"When we look at percentage-wise, the fact that we've brought in tens of thousands of refugees and only a small percentage of those are Yazidis, I think there's a broader question to be asked, and that is: 'Have we prioritized refugees over the past year appropriately?'"
Rempel said today's announcement represented a "small flicker of light" for the persecuted Yazidi people, and hoped it would lead to a more pragmatic immigration debate in North America and the world.