Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons, Feb. 4, 2019 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

More than a year after the United Nations asked countries to take in refugees living in slavery in Libya, Canada has begun resettling hundreds of them, the UN and the federal government said Wednesday.

Canada was one of the few countries to respond to a request from the United Nations refugee agency in December, 2017, to take the refugees who were living in detention centres in Libya, said Michael Casasola, the head of resettlement for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Ottawa.

“It can take some time for the countries to do their selection because it was a voluntary act. So they want to screen. They go through their usual selection processes,” Mr. Casasola said. “That can take time.”

More than 150 people have been resettled and another 600 more are expected over the next two years through the regular refugee settlement program, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said Wednesday.

Canada is also planning to take in 100 refugees from Niger who were rescued from Libyan migrant detention centres, including victims of human smuggling, he added.

That was also helpful because Niger has been pressuring the UN to find new homes for the refugees it has taken in, Mr. Casasola said.

“What Canada has done in addition to being part of the pool of cases in Libya, they’re actually taking refugees out of Niger directly, which is something that helps us get some space with the local government, too,” he said.

Libya is a major stopping point for asylum seekers from Africa who intend to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. A video of what appeared to be smugglers selling imprisoned migrants near Tripoli became public in 2017, prompting world leaders to start talking about freeing migrants detained in Libyan camps.

Mr. Hussen revealed the resettlement plan on Monday night at an event in Ottawa to celebrate Black History Month, but provided few details.

The minister told the gathering that Canada was asked by the UN to “rescue” people who have “endured unimaginable trauma.”

The Mediterranean Sea crossing from North Africa to Europe’s southern coast has been a perilous one for migrants fleeing violence and instability.

Last month, the United Nations Migration Agency reported that 5,757 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea through the first 27 days of 2019, an increase over the 5,502 who arrived during the same period last year. The death toll dropped slightly, to 207 this year compared with 242 deaths in the same period of 2018.

The influx of migrants into Europe has sparked a backlash. Italy’s populist government does not allow ships to bring migrants to its shores, as part of an effort to force other European Union countries to share the burden of dealing with arrivals.

“As Canada takes more refugees, including Libyan refugees, it is important to remind other countries of their own commitments under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the need to respect the principle of responsibility sharing, which is one of the new norms of the refugee compact which Canada and other countries have just signed,” said Fen Osler Hampson, the executive director of the Canadian-led World Refugee Council.

The council, a coalition of international experts and former politicians, was formed to provide solutions to the global migration crisis, which was recently addressed by the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

Last week, a coalition of aid organizations from several European countries condemned the politicking in Europe around migrants.

“Since January 2018, at least 2,500 women, children and men have drowned in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, EU leaders have allowed themselves to become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes,” their open letter said. “Every time a ship brings people who have just been rescued to a European port, EU governments engage in painful, drawn-out debates about where the ship can disembark and which countries can host the survivors and process their asylum applications.”

The Canadian initiative with the Libyans follows recent resettlements of about 1,000 Yazidi refugees from Iraq and 40,000 Syrians, threatened by Islamic State militants and Syrian forces.