The federal government is seeking to resettle more Syrian refugees but only from the country’s religious minorities, according to sources close to discussions around Canada’s position on refugees from the war-torn nation.
Canada has been struggling to meet an earlier commitment from July 2013 to resettle 1,300 Syrians by the end of this year.
The latest statistics, tabled in the House of Commons last week, show 457 refugees have arrived.
Refugee advocacy organizations in Canada have been asking the government to take in 10,000 more Syrians over the next two years and the UN says it is in dire need of assistance as the civil war intensifies.
Canada, along with other Western nations, was urged to do more this week at a conference on Syrian refugees held in Geneva by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
CBC News has confirmed that the parliamentary secretary to the minister of immigration, Costas Menegakis, travelled to Geneva earlier this week. He held meetings but left without making any new commitment to the UN's refugee agency.
Sources close to the discussions say Canada is seeking to resettle only refugees from Syria’s religious minorities, something that would likely be difficult for the UN's refugee agency to accept.
The UNHCR's policy on refugees says a resettlement state determines the "size and composition" of who and how many refugees it accepts, and "therefore has full control with respect to decisions on individual cases."
"Nevertheless, UNHCR urges all states to be guided by the agency’s internationally recognized criteria on eligibility, global needs and priorities," the policy says.
"To preserve the integrity of resettlement as a protection tool and durable solution for refugees most in need, it is important to ensure resettlement programmes are needs‐based, non‐discriminatory and achieve successful integration outcomes."
In a written reply to questions, Kevin Menard, a spokesman for the immigration minister, reiterated Canada’s commitment to help Syrians since the start of the crisis.
"We continue to work with international partners to ensure Canada remains a world leader in providing protection to the world’s most vulnerable populations," he said in an email.
In the email, he did not respond to specific questions asking whether Canada is seeking to put restrictions on new Syrian refugees — limiting them to religious minorities.
Last week, at a news conference urging Canada to answer the call from the UN's refugee agency with a generous response, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, Alex Neve, questioned Canada’s commitment.
"There are many who have raised the concern that if this was not a large population of Muslim refugees, would we be seeing a different response," Neve said. "I do not want to believe that that is all at the heart of why we’re seeing such a miserly response from Canada. But because there is no other explanation right now that hangs there."
Menegakis rejected the suggestion by Neve.
"We totally reject that comment. It is ridiculous and I am not going to dignify it by discussing it any further," Menegakis told CBC news.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said in the summer that he expected to make an announcement about a commitment to take in further Syrian refugees in the near future.
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