Canada's new 'lifeboat' refugee policy: Women, children, and families only

Trudeau's commitment to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada has earned praise from humanitarian groups. But the plan will admit only women, children, and families, perhaps meant to mollify concerns about security checks.  

Fred Thornhill/REUTERS
Provincial Parliament Member Yvan Baker speaks with Asma Mohammad and her mother, Wafa Mohammad, at the Arab Community Centre in Toronto, Canada. The Mohammads are Syrian, and expect Asma's sister and her baby to come to Canada in December.

When Justin Trudeau took office as Canada's prime minister last month, many Liberals expressed hope that the man who brought them a Cabinet that "looks like Canada" would renew the country's reputation as a diverse, tolerant nation and humanitarian leader, particularly as issues of race, culture, and bias have become ongoing themes across the border in the US presidential campaign.

"I want to say this to this country's friends around the world: Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years," Mr. Trudeau told supporters in Ottawa after his party won 184 of the Parliament's 338 seats. "Well, I have a simple message for you on behalf of 35 million Canadians. We're back."

But throughout the campaign, Canadians showed some hesitance about a linchpin of Trudeau's foreign policy shift: a pledge to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by January 1. Details of the plan are scheduled to be released Tuesday. 

On Sunday night, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation cited unnamed sources to report that Trudeau's policy will accept only women, children, and families

Even 25,000 makes Canada far more welcoming than the United States, where, thanks to state governors' rejection of refugee resettlement plans following the Paris attacks, the House of Representatives has now put a halt to President Obama's pledge to accept 10,000, most of whom would also be women, children, and the elderly

But according to the United Nations' registry of nearly 4.3 million Syrian refugees worldwide, roughly half are male. Among both male and female refugees, about half are under age 17.

In September, Time's Karl Vick wrote: 

Many doubtless are escaping conscription into the Syrian armed forces, which President Bashar Assad in a July speech admitted faces major manpower shortages. Almost all are a vanguard for families waiting to follow them. You don’t send a mother or a grandfather to scout a route to a new home. You send the hardiest and least vulnerable—males in their late teens to middle age.

Politicians in the US and Canada have voiced concern over security screenings, particularly for young men. In Canada, however, police and intelligence chiefs have vetted the plan's screening process. The Canadian government is already under pressure to quickly process refugees' security checks and figure out how to provide essentials within weeks, and, in the long term, to help the refugees meet acculturation challenges.

Many refugees will be temporarily housed in winterized military barracks. Over six years, the program is predicted to cost $1.2 billion, of which $1.1 billion still needs to be found. 

According to polls, the short time frame concerns many Canadians. Forty-two percent supported the plan, while 54 percent opposed it; 53 percent of its opponents cite the timeline as their main concern, worried about adequate screening. The numbers have not changed dramatically since the Paris attacks, which prompted many US governors' vocal opposition to refugee resettlement. 

But Canada has not been immune from reactionary anti-Muslim hate crimes, particularly around the Toronto area and Ontario, where individuals have been attacked, as well as a mosque. "You really realize it could happen to any one of us," high school student Sara Ahmad told the CBC. 

On the whole, however, provincial officials have backed Trudeau's plan, even volunteering to take in more refugees than the central government requested. "I have never felt so patriotic as a Canadian as I am today, to be involved in bringing 25,000 people from the direst conditions on the planet here to our blessed country of Canada," Immigration Minister John McCallum said last Friday. 

The same day, other officials emphasized the 'Canadian-ness' of the plan.

"That's the danger and that somehow talking about security allows us to tap into that racist vein, when that isn't who we are," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said, while Health Minister Jane Philpott called the refugee plan "the Canadian way."

But as Canadians wait to hear details on Tuesday, wariness persists about fast-track adjustments, where every mistake may cost not just the Liberal party, but refugees themselves.

"Canadians are more likely to give Trudeau a pass on a modified role in the engagement against ISIS than to forgive a botched refugee operation," journalist Chantal Hébert predicted in the Toronto Star. "Little could go a longer way to poison the well for the thousands of Middle East refugees the government is planning to bring here, but also that of the incoming Liberal government."

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