Canada needed as 'honest broker' on world stage, ex-UN refugees chief says

​Former United Nations high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres says there is a growing perception that new policies being brought in by the Liberal government will put Canada in a position to be an "honest broker" on the world stage.

UN refugee agency 'totally against' prioritizing refugees by ethnicity or religion, Antonio Guterres says

The former head of the UN refugee agency Antonio Guterres says he is grateful to Canada for its contribution to the resettlement of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Guterres is giving a speech at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa Friday morning. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

Canada is again being seen abroad as a country that can play an active leadership role as "an honest broker" in various conflicts, says the former United Nations high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres.

Guterres was introduced by Canada's new ambassador to the UN, Marc-André Blanchard, before giving a speech Friday morning at the Ottawa Forum, a foreign policy event organized by Canada 2020 and the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

"I think this is the moment in which the world needs a surge in diplomacy for peace," said Guterres. "It is my deep belief that Canada is in a privileged position to play an important role in this regard."

"With your new foreign policy, I believe Canada has all the conditions to be perceived as an honest broker," said Guterres, who is also the former prime minister of Portugal.

"Which means, if I may make a small joke, that you might move from a usual suspect to an honest broker, which of course, increases enormously your capacity to lead... for peace to be overcome."

Praise for resettlement efforts

Guterres also had high praise for Canada's resettlement program, ranking it as one of "the two best in the world" alongside Australia's.

"Canada has been, during the 10 years I was high commissioner for refugees, a very reliable partner and a strong supporter of our activities worldwide," said Guterres in a phone interview with CBC News on Thursday.

Guterres's tenure at the helm of the UN refugee agency was marked by some of the largest displacements of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

"More recently, Canada has adopted very important measures with the resettlement quota for Syrians and with the increased support to the humanitarian action of the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies," Guterres said.

The Canadian government has committed to resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees, a mix of government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees, by March 1. Some 14,329 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, when the Liberal government was sworn into power.

Prior to the Liberals coming into power, Canada had permanently resettled nearly 25,000 Iraqi and Syrian refugees since 2009, according to the government website.

Reversing 'negative tide' against migrants

Guterres said Canada's most recent contribution comes as the refugee crisis worsens and while anti-refugee sentiment has grown in cities around the world.

Guterres's tenure at the helm of the UN refugee agency was marked by some of the largest displacements of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. He is seen here, third right, speaking with refugees and migrants on the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Oct. 11, 2015. (Antonis Pasvantis/Associated Press)

"The Canadian initiative has been an extremely helpful initiative in trying to reverse this negative tide against foreigners in general, migrants and refugees in particular."

"Canadians can be very proud of the society they are building," Guterres said on Thursday.

Guterres's visit to Ottawa comes following a report by The Canadian Press that the previous Conservative government instructed visa officers in Jordan and Lebanon to track "areas of focus" for Syrian refugees identified by the UN for resettlement to Canada.

The officers were asked to identify whether someone was a member of a vulnerable ethnic or religious minority, according to the documents tabled in the House of Commons this week. The tracking would have taken place from February to November 2015, according to the report by CP's Stephanie Levitz.

'Totally against' picking and choosing

"I was not aware of this," Guterres told CBC News on Thursday, adding, "The only thing I can say is that … in the resettlement programs that are managed through the UNHCR, we are absolutely adamant to avoid any form of religious or ethnic discrimination."

"There is a set of vulnerability criteria," Guterres said, "and that set of vulnerability criteria needs to be fully respected."

There was a huge pressure from some European countries to have only Christian refugees … and we have always opposed that very firmly.- Antonio Guterres, former UN high commissioner for refugees

The UN refugee agency does not manage the resettlement of privately sponsored refugees, although sponsors can ask visa officers to be matched with refugees that have been identified by the UN agency.

According to the UNHCR, "refugees are identified as in need of resettlement when they are at risk in their country of refuge or have particular needs or vulnerabilities."

The list of persons the UN will prioritize for resettlement includes women and children at risk, survivors of torture and violence, refugees with medical needs, among others.

Guterres said the UN agency does not pick and choose refugees based on their ethnicity or religion.

"We are totally against that," Guterres told CBC News.

"There was a huge pressure from some European countries to have only Christian refugees … and we have always opposed that very firmly."

Guterres said that although the UN agency does not identify refugees on the basis of ethnicity or religion, it is possible for a member of a minority group to be deemed as some of the most vulnerable.

"To be part of a minority, can be in certain situations a source of vulnerability."

The Canadian Press also reported that a spokeswoman for the Immigration Department acknowledged in an email that while some tracking was done anecdotally, "no refugees were screened out of the resettlement process as a result of the areas of focus."

The Conservatives consistently refuted accusations they were prioritizing refugees by ethnicity or religion.

Guterres told CBC he had no first-hand knowledge of the claims in the media report, but said his experience with Canada's resettling of Syrian refugees has been positive.

"I have always had a lot of respect for what has been the Canadian refugee policy, so I would be surprised. It's something that would not be correct," he said.

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