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Parliament may probe why Canada is turning away LGBT Iranians

MPs concerned about stagnating refugee arrivals amid Trump’s executive order

LGBT Iranians march at Toronto’s 2012 Pride parade. Credit: andres musta/Flickr/Creative Commons

A parliamentary committee could soon probe why Canada suddenly started turning away LGBT Iranians seeking asylum, Xtra has learned. The move comes as members of Parliament express confusion over why a famed program that brought hundreds of refugees to safety has ground to a halt.

According to a Feb 3, 2017, Xtra investigation, Canada started turning away LGBT Iranians in Turkey seeking third-country resettlement, shortly after the Liberal government’s airlift of Syrians got underway in November 2015.

Since 2010, Canada has resettled hundreds of Iranians from Turkey fleeing persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Most were resettled through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), after the former Conservative government asked the agency to refer such cases to Canada, often with the help of Toronto-based activists.

But almost weekly arrivals gradually slowed, and by 2016 the UNHCR started referring these Iranians to the United States, which has now barred Iranians from entry following Trump’s executive order on several predominantly Muslim countries. Meanwhile, Canadian officials said they had too many Syrian cases to process and suggested activists privately sponsor these refugees, a costly process that takes much longer.

That’s left many LGBT Iranians stranded in Turkey amid an uptick in LGBT hate crimes and violence in the country. On Feb 8, UNHCR spokeswoman Selin Unal told Xtra that the agency  has registered “over 1,900 LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees” in Turkey, and the “majority of these people are from Iran.”

Now, members of Parliament are starting to raise questions.

Liberal MP Hedy Fry says she cherishes a plaque in her office that activists gave her for helping dozens of resettlement cases. But she noticed a drop in applications over the past year.

“I used to get a lot of them,” she told Xtra, visibly alarmed. “I haven’t heard from anybody at all, and yet I was in the loop with that group. I don’t know what’s happening.”

Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi says both Arsham Parsi, founder of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees and Saghi Ghahraman, co-founder of the Iranian Queer Organization, approached him in spring 2016 about a slowdown in applications. When Ehsassi told the immigration ministry, officials simply replied that they’d look into it.

“I have never heard anything about the system collapsing, from a government official. I have heard expressions of concern, that it has slowed down. But I truly do not know whether that is the case or not.”

In an interview with Xtra, Ehsassi notes his government has opened more spots for privately sponsoring refugees.

“At no point as a government did we say, ‘we’re only taking in Syrian refugees,’” he says. “We’ve always been welcoming to refugees around the world; that is supposed to be ongoing. But as you know, last year we did set aside a certain number for refugees from Syria as well.”

Ehsassi points out that the House immigration committee recently decided to examine a separate pilot project where the federal government covers costs for chapters of the Rainbow Refugee Committee to privately sponsor refugees. He’s asked the committee to welcome both Parsi and Ghahraman to speak about the UN resettlement issue.

Ehsassi also notes that “any assertion that we are receiving any specific numbers can’t be accurate” because Canada doesn’t receive case information from the UNHCR identifying people as gender or sexual minorities.

But that’s the problem, according to Conservative immigration critic MP Michelle Rempel.

“This isn’t about discrimination. This is about saying there are actually people who face more discrimination because of their religion or their sexual orientation, or their gender identity,” Rempel says. 

“It’s not improper for us to ask questions about that, right? Or to demand that there’s a prioritization.”

Rempel notes that while Canada listed “members of the LGBTI community” among four priority groups in its Syrian resettlement, it’s never said how many came, or how they’d be accommodated.

She sees a parallel in the confusion of LGBT Iranians.

“LGBT people in Iran are some of the most persecuted people in the world,” Rempel says. “But to just ignore this, and sort of give it lip service, it just does a disservice to our overall refugee policy.”

In July 2016, the House immigration committee spent 14 hours looking at whether Canada adequately protects vulnerable immigrants and refugees. LGBT groups testified that refugees fleeing persecution often feel unsafe in cramped camps with people from their home country, and face inappropriate questioning from UN and Canadian officials.

“Canada should be very seriously reconsidering its process for selecting and prioritizing LGBT people to come to Canada,” Rempel says.

She also framed the US restrictions on refugees as an opportunity for Canada to take in the most vulnerable. “It’s something I think Canada could be a world leader on.”

As for LGBT Iranians in Turkey, the UNHCR says “there is not a specific protocol” for keeping queer refugees safe, but that local LGBT groups are helping while the UN approaches other countries for resettlement.

“We have submitted LGBT cases to various countries,” Unal writes. “UNHCR hopes that the US will continue its strong leadership role and long history of protecting those who are fleeing conflict and persecution. Resettlement is one of the key tools to ensure the protection of vulnerable refugees, of whom LGBTI are prioritised.”