OTTAWA – At least 400 Yazidi women raped and tortured by Islamic militants could have safe passage to Canada if the government would heed a proposal to rescue them, a religious freedoms organization says.
One Free World International says in their drive to resettle more than 25,000 Syrian refugees, the Liberals are turning their backs on the most vulnerable – religious minorities who are often a direct target of warring factions in the ongoing conflicts in the region.
The group has identified 400 Yazidi women and their families, about 1,600 people in all, living in displaced persons camps in Kurdistan. It has a plan to bring them to Canada, but says the proposal is being ignored.
Yazidis, ethnic Kurds whose faith dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, gained global attention in 2014 when fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant captured the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq, forcing nearly 50,000 to flee to a mountain top where they were besieged for weeks.
Their situation is in part what prompted then-prime minister Stephen Harper to join international air strikes against ISIL.
But their fate is now forgotten, said Majed El Shafie, founder of the One Free World group.
Girls as young as nine are sold into sex slavery, tortured, forced to convert or be killed and yet the Canadian government is doing nothing to help, he told a House of Commons committee on Tuesday.
“The government has failed big time in helping them,” he said.
“Even if the government brought only nine cases, what will this do to the community that is facing genocide?”
The question of whether what’s happening to the Yazidis amounts to genocide will get renewed attention in the House of Commons on Thursday. A Conservative motion will be debated calling for the House to condemn the atrocities perpetrated by ISIL against religious and sexual minorities and to declare the crimes a genocide.
The Tories already tried and failed to move a motion to that effect in April.
Three months earlier, El Shafie said he’d met Immigration Minister John McCallum at a reception, chatted with him about the group’s plan and followed up a few days later with his chief of staff.
The group never heard back and held a press conference on the Hill last month to apply further pressure, but there’s been no action.
Neither McCallum nor his chief of staff could recall the meeting, but the minister said he is open to discussing the issue.
“If people come to me with specific cases, who are clearly vulnerable, they make a strong case, we will in some cases try to help them,” McCallum said.
“And not because they’re Yazidi or Christian or Muslim but because they are clearly potential refugees in a desperate situation.”
The government is already working with a group in Winnipeg sponsoring Yazidis through the private system but McCallum noted refugees in places like northern Iraq or Turkey are hard to reach and officials are doing what they can.
But NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said bureaucracy is no excuse for inaction when the reports of what’s happening to the Yazidis continue to circulate.
“Is it acceptable to just turn around and say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do?’,” she said.
El Shafie’s plan would involve sending teams to Iraqi Kurdistan in conjunction with settlement workers poised in Canada to accept the women and their families.
Since the women are in their home country, they would have to come to Canada under special provisions within immigration law, not the existing refugee resettlement program.