OTTAWA — Some 1,200 people considered to be among the most vulnerable refugees in the world are to be housed in Canada by the end of this year, the Trudeau government announced Tuesday — a move praised by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel as a message to the world that the persecuted Yazidi population needs to be a greater priority for safe-haven countries.
Nearly 400 Yazidi refugees and other survivors of Islamist extremists have already been accepted over the last four months, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said in announcing the initiative, which is expected to cost $28 million.
But unlike the thousands of refugees fleeing violence in Syria who were greeted by flashing cameras and intense public exposure, the Yazidis have been entering the country with no fanfare. That won't change, say government officials who are protecting the identity of the asylum seekers because of just how vulnerable they are.
"Some of these women haven't even told their own families about what they experienced" at the hands of their persecutors, associate deputy immigration minister Dawn Edlund told a news conference alongside Hussen.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says Canada has long offered protection to refugees based on "vulnerability, not religion or ethnicity" and will thus focus on "highly vulnerable" survivors of Daesh. (Photo: The Canadian Press)
Others are worried that, should their identities be revealed, the family members and friends they've left behind will face retribution, she said.
Hussen wouldn't detail the experiences the Yazidis have endured, encouraging reporters to instead seek out the information from United Nations reports that have chronicled their fate at the hands of extremists bent on genocide.
But Rempel, who commended the Liberals for taking in the Yazidis after her own previous Conservative government failed to act, said she's been shocked by the stories she's heard and amazed by the resilience of the survivors of rape, torture and other unspeakable atrocities.
"The reality is that if the international community doesn't wake up to the plight of these people, they will be wiped off the face of the earth," Rempel said.
"And that's why it's so important to look at resettlement of these people as only one very small piece of the broader puzzle."
In addition to 1,200 government-assisted refugees, the government says it also intends to facilitate private sponsorships of Yazidi refugees.
"Some of these women haven't even told their own families about what they experienced."
The announcement came four months after 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.
The motion recognized that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also called Daesh, is committing genocide against the Yazidi people and holding many of the religious group's women and girls as sex slaves.
Although the motion referred only to providing asylum to Yazidi women and girls, the 1,200 refugees will include male family members.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said the government has learned that Daesh also deliberately targets young boys and, therefore, "helping to resettle all child survivors of Daesh is vital to this work."
The minister also contended that keeping families together will help the refugees adjust to living in Canada and heal from the trauma they've suffered.
Focus on 'highly vulnerable' survivors
Although the motion referred strictly to the Yazidi people, the government is not confining its efforts solely to members of that religious group, who live primarily in northern Iraq.
Hussen said Canada has long offered protection to refugees based on "vulnerability, not religion or ethnicity" and will thus focus on "highly vulnerable" survivors of Daesh. Still, he said a "significant majority" of the 1,200 will be Yazidi due to the "high level of violence" they've suffered.
Roughly three quarters of the 400 refugees that have come into Canada so far are Yazidi, said officials.
The Yazidi people are "an integral part" of Iraq's society and it's important to preserve that, Hussen argued, adding that's why the government is focusing on "a small number of people for whom resettlement is the best option."
"As many have experienced unimaginable trauma, both physical and emotional, many will have unique psychological and social needs such as trauma counselling."
Moreover, Hussen said the government is taking lessons from Germany — which resettled just more than 1,000 Daesh survivors from northern Iraq over the course of a year — on how to work safely in a volatile environment to identify and run security checks on refugees and how best to ensure that the necessary settlement services are in place once they arrive in Canada.
"As many have experienced unimaginable trauma, both physical and emotional, many will have unique psychological and social needs such as trauma counselling," Hussen said.
The government said it sought support from authorities in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and that it has the consent of the Iraqi government to operate in the region.
While the majority of the 1,200 refugees will come from Iraq, the government said some will also be accepted from Lebanon and Turkey.