Rampant corruption on the ground biggest hurdle to bringing Yazidis to Canada, expert warns

Widespread corruption in northern Iraq is the biggest challenge Canada will confront in rescuing Yazidi women and girls, says the expert who led Germany's groundbreaking efforts to give asylum to 1,100 survivors of sexual slavery, torture and violence at the hands of ISIS.

Germany carves path for Canada to provide asylum to women and girls fleeing ISIS sex slavery

Canada has committed to resettling Yazidi women and girls by Feb. 25, 2017. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

Widespread corruption in Iraq is the biggest challenge Canada will confront in resettling Yazidi women and girls, warns the expert who led Germany's groundbreaking effort to grant asylum to 1,100 survivors of sexual slavery, torture and violence by ISIS.

Canada has committed to follow Germany's lead in receiving an undetermined number of people fleeing genocide in northern Iraq, and is taking advice on what hurdles lie ahead.

Michael Blume, the head of Germany's Special Quota Project, said officials must prepare to take a hard line against fraud, rip-offs and bribery at all levels.

"There is a big problem with corruption in the region," he said in a telephone interview with CBC News. "Even well-meaning NGOs have their financial interests, so it's a real challenge to keep the focus on the people and not to be played with."

Key to avoiding exploitation is working with the right partners on the ground, sticking to strict protocols and not cutting corners despite the urgent need for help, said Blume. 

MPs voted unanimously on Oct. 25 to adopt motion tabled by Conservative Immigration critic Michelle Rempel. That motion formally recognized that ISIS is committing genocide against the Yazidi people, and committed to providing asylum to Yazidi women and girls within 120 days, effectively setting a deadline of Feb. 25.

For this to be successful, Blume says Canada must build a strategy that doesn't depend on any single partner. This way Canada can keep control and avoid bowing to pressure to accept certain people, or to pay inflated prices for services.

"If you don't do that, there's a chance officials will try to get some money for themselves, and you will get families who have a strong lobby or financial means but you don't get those people you want to help," Blume said.

Michael Blume is head of the Special Quota Project that brought 1,100 Yazidi women and girls to Germany. (Courtesy Michael Blume)

The Yazidis are a religious minority with an ancient 6,000-year-old culture. They're based mainly in northern Iraq.

Germany was the first country to launch a special program to help vulnerable women and girls, most of them Yazidis but some of them Christians and other religious minorities. It brought in 1,100 people between March 2015 and January 2016. The projected three-year cost was 95 million euros, or about $134 million Cdn, for transportation, housing and medical treatment, but Blume said the actual figure is now expected to be about one-third less.

Project met resistance

By most measures, the Special Quota Project has been a success, but the pilot program was initially met with much resistance and criticism from local governments, aid groups and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. Most groups on the ground preferred that Germany hand over more money rather than resettle Yazidis.

Adding to that challenge was the logistical quagmire of extracting vulnerable people from a war zone.

But Blume said the program built critical partnerships and overcame resistance by focusing on emergency cases and assuring local governments the goal was to protect the vulnerable population, not to scatter the minority group by moving them abroad.

"Now governments of the region are understanding that if they don't help and support their minorities they will lose them," he said.

No suicides

One of Blume's measures of success is that not a single woman has committed suicide since arriving in Germany. Many of the women were suicidal after being held captive as sex slaves of ISIS.

Some have now integrated into German society, finding work and housing, while others are struggling with learning the language and suffering extreme effects of trauma.

Iraqi Yazidi refugees fill bottles with water at the Newroz camp in Hasaka province, northeastern Syria after fleeing advances by ISIS jihadists in Iraq. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty)

The young children are adapting beyond expectations.

"After what they have suffered, they want to live. And they want to get good marks. It's their way of helping their mothers," Blume said. "As a child they can't earn money, but they can make their mother smile with good marks. So many of them are very motivated."

About 60 per cent of the Yazidis had said they would eventually like to return to northern Iraq, and they are free to do so. But less than one per cent, just eight people, have gone back so far.

Marriage restricted

Blume expects the vast majority will remain in Europe, and Germany is already planning a second phase to bring in more Yazidis and other persecuted minorities.

One of the long-term challenges of resettlement is the cultural practice of endogamy, which restricts marriage to others within the Yazidi community.

That is why it's important to welcome more families in future, Blume said. But there are also signs of a possible shift in custom.

"More and more Yazidis understand that if they want to survive in the diaspora, then they might have to reform some of their teachings. There is a lot of debate around that within the Yazidi community."

No details about Canada's plan or target have been released publicly, but a spokesman for Immigration Minister John McCallum said there has been progress behind the scenes.

"Planning is proceeding well, and due to operations security, it would not be appropriate to offer any planning details at this time," Bernie Derible told CBC News.

'No excuse': Rempel

But Rempel said a target has not yet been articulated with allocated resources, and NGOs she has been in contact with on the ground have not heard from Canadian officials.

"It's four months, and the government had less time to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada," she said. "This has been an issue for over a year. I don't expect anything other than a significant number of Yazidis  on our shores during this period of time. There's absolutely no excuse for the government to trot out a few families....and say our hands are clean of this."

About the Author

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections. Follow her on Twitter @ottawareporter