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Politics Documents show Tories’ selective approach to processing Syrian refugees

Syrian refugee children walk outside their family tents at a Syrian refugee camp, in the eastern town of Kab Elias, Lebanon, on Jan. 27.

Bilal Hussein/AP

Canadian visa officials handling Syrian refugee cases referred by the UN were told to track the religion and ethnicity of applicants and to expedite the cases that met one of the former Conservative government's "areas of focus," according to new documents tabled in Parliament.

The documents confirm what The Globe and Mail first reported in October, that the Conservative government had created a triage system for UN-referred Syrian refugees that determined which groups got to the front of the line. The areas of focus, as the system was known, included those who belonged to a religious or ethnic minority, which the Conservatives had said would be the priority for Canada's resettlement efforts. That policy decision raised eyebrows, as it suggested Canada would discriminate among people already deemed highly vulnerable by virtue of their referral for resettlement by the UN refugee agency.

The Liberal government tabled the documents this week in response to questions from New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan, who asked what instructions had been given to processing officers regarding the religion or ethnicity of Syrian refugees. The immigration ministry said officers in Beirut and Amman were told in February of last year to expedite processing those cases that met at least one area of focus. Cases that did not were placed in the regular inventory and dealt with more slowly. By law, Canada is required to process all cases referred by the UN.

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The government, in its response to Ms. Kwan, denied that it is giving priority on the basis of religion or ethnicity to refugees for resettlement. It said it ceased tracking areas of focus in November, 2015. At the time, Liberal immigration minister John McCallum told The Globe the government would scrap them.

The areas of focus, which were never made public, did not just target religious and ethnic minorities. They also included categories that resembled criteria usually associated with selecting immigrants for economic migration, such as those who had run a business in Syria but were not connected to the governing regime, those who spoke English or French, and families whose children were under 10 years of age. Other categories focused on LGBT people and women who had been victims of violence, as well as those living outside refugee camps, or who had family connections in Canada.

In June, the government halted the processing of UN-referred refugees as it conducted an audit of those it had already admitted. One of the purposes of the audit was to determine how many of the refugees met one or more of the areas of focus, as well as to ensure that security concerns were properly addressed. The halt lasted 2 1/2 months as the refugee crisis in Europe was nearing its peak.

The documents show that Canada's UN-referred refugee admissions dropped from a high of 62 in June to nine in July and 16 in August. For all of 2015, up to Dec. 14, Canada admitted only 411 government-sponsored refugees. It admitted 8,214 privately sponsored refugees in that period.

With a report from Steven Chase

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