Despite Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s Dec 8 pledge to accept more refugees who are persecuted because of their sexual orientation, critics are questioning the government’s record on this file.
Kenney committed to create more spaces in Canada for refugees from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), including a pledge to continue to resettle religious minorities and victims of persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation, such as Iranians who have fled to Turkey.
“Canada currently receives one out of every 10 resettled refugees from around the world, and we’re proud to be the seventh largest donor to the good work of the UNHCR, contributing over $50 million this year,” Kenney said.
NDP immigration critic Don Davies asked the government to do more, especially in cases where people are persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender.
Kenney’s pledge refers specifically to the department’s Government-Assisted Refugees Program, say department officials, and not to private sponsorships, which the government has capped in order to tackle a backlog of claimants.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, feels Kenney is using the UNHCR as a gatekeeper.
“The government doesn’t want people either coming to Canada and making a refugee claim where we’re forced to determine them, nor do they want people knocking on our embassy doors and [saying] I want to have my need for protection evaluated by you,” Dench says. “They want someone else to do the screening for them and decide which people are worthy enough to have their cases considered by Canada. They’re using the UNHCR as a way of ‘managing access.’”
Dench says she is worried by the fact that Kenney’s message was delivered at the same time the government is restricting the number of applications that groups privately sponsoring refugees are able to make.
“Once they’ve dealt with the backlog and start to try to increase the numbers, are there going to be groups out there ready to do the sponsorships that they want?” Dench asks.
Dench says the focus on Iranian refugees in Turkey is also puzzling. She says a more urgent concern is refugees from Africa, including gays and lesbians. She says the Canadian government has not been good at responding to such claimants.
“It is worrying when you don’t hear the minister highlighting the situation of African [queer] refugees, who must be among the most vulnerable and among the most in need of special efforts to protect them,” Dench says.
Liberal immigration critic Kevin Lamoureux says the Conservatives have demonized refugees, especially in Bill C-4, which attempts to crack down on human smuggling.
Critics have said the bill will target legitimate refugees.
“When they introduce bills like C-4 and they have these photo-ops on the back of a ship [that carried Tamil migrants], it sends such a negative message about refugees to the general population, and I think that’s unhealthy towards perception that Canadians as a whole have towards refugees,” Lamoureux says. “So on the one hand, I give them credit for recognizing Canada’s role in accepting refugees. On the other hand, I’m very concerned about how they try to demonize the way in which those people that come to Canada are perceived in the eyes of the average Canadian.”