'International leadership:' MPs chart new course by bringing Yazidi genocide survivors to Canada

With less than four months to move potentially thousands of Yazidis from conflict zones and refugee camps to Canada, MPs will learn from officials this week about the complex security and operational hurdles ahead.

Government has less than 4 months to develop action plan to help victims of ISIS sex slavery

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the ISIS in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain August 11, 2014. (Rodi Said/Reuters )

With less than four months to move as many as several thousand Yazidis to Canada from conflict zones and refugee camps, MPs will learn from officials this week about the complex security and operational hurdles ahead.

Last month, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a Conservative motion to provide assistance and asylum to survivors of ISIS genocide, mainly from within the Yazidi ethnic minority group. Now, the government must develop a quick action plan that steps outside the traditional United Nations process.

The Yazidi genocide survivors are currently trapped in high-conflict areas in Northern Iraq or waiting in refugee camps in Syria, Greece and Turkey.

On Thursday, MPs on the citizenship and immigration committee will hear about the biggest challenges, first from Canadian officials who were dispatched to northern Iraq on a fact-finding mission, then from German officials about their own experience helping to rescue Yazidi refugees.

Liberal MP and committee chair Borys Wrzesnewskyj said Canada could chart a new process for the world by helping the most vulnerable victims of atrocities outside the UN regime.

Calling this a "new reality," he said Canada must not wring its hands in the face of horrors, but rather adapt and act with moral authority.

'International leadership'

"There's clearly a lack in the established frameworks, and perhaps this is a role Canada can take on internationally and lead in," Wrzesnewskyj told CBC News. "The fact we're taking in a number of genocide survivors — women and girls who have gone through unimaginable horrors — we're taking international leadership by doing this."

Despite the tremendous challenges, he hopes the committee can provide parliamentary oversight to Canada's process, and even provide a template for other countries to follow.

"There is almost a personal element to this, and we want to make sure we do this in a way that Canadians can point to with pride and say, 'We made a difference for these genocide survivors,'" he said.

Yazidis are one of the oldest religious and ethnic minorities in the world with a 6,000-year-old culture, based mainly in northern Iraq.

Sexual slavery

In August 2014, ISIS launched brutal attacks targeting the Yazidi community, forcing young women and girls into sexual slavery and converting young boys and men to militant fighters.

In June, a United Nations report said ISIS was seeking to destroy the community of 400,000 people, systematically rounding up Yazidis to "erase their identity." That finding meets the definition of genocide under the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion subsequently declared that genocide was underway.

The House unanimously adopted the multi-pronged Conservative motion on Oct. 25, with a four-month target to bring in an unspecified number of Yazidis.

Recommended target?

Conservative Immigration critic Michelle Rempel, who spearheaded the motion, declined to offer a recommended target number but said non-governmental groups have suggested between 3,000 and 5,000 is doable.

Conservative Immigration critic, centre, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum, right, and Nadia Murad Basee Taha, a Yazidi survivor of genocide, speak to reporters after MPs unanimously adopted a motion to help the victims on Oct. 25, 2016. (CBC)

"There is no reason that if they committed to 25,000 refugees this year, Germany has brought in over 1,000, that we can not bring in a significant number," she said.

After lengthy delays caused by what she called "bureaucratic pushback" in Canada and at the UN, she said the situation is now urgent. Rempel said responding outside the UN referral system could be "precedent-setting."

Rempel believes the many challenges — ranging from the technical and legal issues of going in to a sovereign country to assuring safety for Canadian processing agents — can be overcome with collaboration between the federal government officials and the military coalition on the ground.

But she insisted this operation can't be viewed as a rescue mission alone. Canada must work to create "safe zones" for Yazidis still at risk of persecution, even in camps. Specialized treatments are also required for women and girl survivors of rape and torture who are suffering physical and mental trauma.

Murad Ismael, executive director of advocacy group Yazda, hopes Canada will bring in a "substantial" number of Yazidis, who are now displaced in northern Iraq and in refugee camps in Syria, Greece and Turkey.

Preserving culture, language

"I think it is important to bring in a sufficient number to also allow a Yazidi community to be created in Canada; a community of thousands that will also allow Yazidis to preserve their traditions, culture and language," he said.

There are only an estimated 1,000 Yazidis living in Canada now, residing primarily in Winnipeg and Toronto. The Yazidi faith requires that a child have two Yazidi parents and mixed marriages are strongly discouraged.

Who are the Yazidis?

  • Predominantly ethnically Kurdish, practising an ancient faith deriving elements of a Persian faith, Christianity and Islam.
  • Have traditionally lived in small communities in northwest Iraq, Syria and Turkey; no one knows the current population.
  • Called "devil-worshippers" by some because they pray to the  Melek Taus. It is known by some as "shaytan," which is the Arabic word Muslims use for the devil, but the Yazidis worship it as the Peacock Angel, not the devil.

Ismael recommends a phased program would prioritize survivors of sexual slavery and direct victims of genocide in Iraq, as well as those in refugee camps in Turkey, Greece and Syria.

He said the challenges are significant but surmountable.

"The challenge of going outside the UN system is to screen and find those who are most vulnerable," he said. "However, we believe it is possible to navigate this challenge through using databases of the victims already in place....(the) selection process perhaps is the most tricky one and clear parameters beforehand should make the selection easier." 

Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said the government is committed to offering protection to the Yazidi population, seen here attempting to escape ISIS persecution, but is moving ahead with great caution. (Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said the government is committed to offering protection to the Yazidi population at risk, but is moving ahead with great caution.

Next steps

"We recognize that operating in the region is complex and could pose risks. It is imperative that we consider the next steps very carefully," she said. "Officials from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada are meeting with key partners to gather as much information on how we can best assist the most vulnerable members of this community as quickly as we can."

The Opposition motion, tabled by Rempel, called on the House of Commons to:

  • Recognize that ISIS is committing genocide against the Yazidi people.
  • Acknowledge that many Yazidi women and girls are still being held captive by ISIS as sexual slaves.
  • Support the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria report and take immediate action on key recommendations.
  • Provide asylum to Yazidi women and girls within 120 days.


Kathleen Harris

Senior producer, Politics

Kathleen Harris is the senior producer for CBC.ca in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau.


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