OTTAWA — As the Conservatives push for more help for Yazidis fleeing persecution at the hands of Islamic militants, new information suggests their efforts to do so while in government were minimal.
Data from a controversial audit of Syrian refugee cases ordered by former prime minister Stephen Harper late last spring reveals of 546 people reviewed, three identified as Yazidi, a Kurdish minority group which practices an ancient faith.
Immigration officials also told a House of Commons committee Monday that Yazidis were never highlighted specifically by the Conservatives as a group that should be prioritized for resettlement, even with their targeted approach to resettlement.
The data and the testimony Monday give both the Liberal and the Conservative arguments over Canada's refugee policy some new energy after the file was a political flashpoint for most of 2015.
A displaced boy from the minority Yazidi sect poses for a photographer at a refugee camp, Jan. 2. (Photo: Ari Jalal/Reuters)
The Conservatives' areas-of-focus policy drew heavy criticism, with many arguing it flew in the face of international obligations that see the UN choose who is resettled. The Tories argued that they were using the UN criteria, but were drilling down within them to ensure the most vulnerable were helped.
The Tories put religious minorities in that category, but the data obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information laws suggest the vast majority of landed Syrians whose files were audited were Sunni Muslim, as is the refugee population at large. About three dozen were Christian.
That few Yazidis arrived under their watch is a fact the Tories haven't dwelled on as they have been pushing the Liberals for more action.
Since 2014, the Yazidis have been subject to forced conversions, murder, rape and enslavement at the hands of Islamic militants — actions recently declared a genocide by the UN.
Resettlement for Yazidis should be priority: Tories
The Tories now say that declaration should put them at the front of the line for resettlement to Canada.
There are, however, numerous policy roadblocks, especially the fact that most are in their home country of Iraq and as such aren't eligible for resettlement.
Another challenge is that while a person's faith or ethnicity might be the reason he or she became a refugee, it's not something the UN looks at when selecting people for resettlement. In fact, the UN expressly asks states not to prioritize groups that way because the most important criteria must be vulnerability.
The Liberals repeatedly asked Immigration Department officials Monday about the policies of the previous government. While in opposition, they had argued that selecting refugees on the basis of religion — as the Tories were believed to be doing — was wrong. The Liberals have resisted calls to do so with the Yazidis.
But the Tories never gave specific instructions to track Yazidis, the officials said.
Yazidi refugee Salma Bakir, 9, from Iraq, waits with her family to be permitted by Macedonian police to board a train. (Photo: Muhammed Muheisen/The Associated Press)
What about the Tories' "areas of focus," the officials were asked. Were Yazidis placed on that?
"There was no specific group put on the list," Robert Orr, assistant deputy minister, said.
While the immigration department doesn't track cases, officials were ordered to audit them by the prime minister's office just over one year ago as the refugee crisis began to boil in the Middle East.
News of the audit emerged during the election campaign, creating renewed criticism about the Conservatives' response to the Syrian crisis.
At the time, the government said they were just checking to see if the "areas of focus" approach was working.
Yazidis 'facing genocide': Rempel
For their part Monday, the Conservatives pushed departmental officials on whether the Liberals have taken any action to help Yazidis in the wake of the UN report calling for renewed efforts to grant them asylum.
The Tories want the government to return to the areas-of-focus approach, arguing that within vulnerable populations of refugees, certain groups should be fast tracked, including those whose faith puts them at greater risk.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel tried to get a UN official testifying before the committee to agree that the current UN approach made no sense, given the organization's own call for help for Yazidis.
"How are we supposed to help these people? They are facing genocide," she said.
"Is there any hope out of the UN that we can get over this bureaucracy?"