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Refugees and migrants struggle to jump off an overcrowded dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos on Oct. 2, after crossing in rough seas from Turkey.DIMITRIS MICHALAKIS/Reuters

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper says his government prioritizes vulnerable religious and ethnic groups for refugee processing because they are being targeted by Islamic State for "extermination," even as critics accused his government of crafting a discriminatory policy.

The refugee issue continued to reverberate across the election campaign Friday as Mr. Harper spoke in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. He said his government's policy is not "exclusionary" but is an important factor in making refugee decisions. Responding to a suggestion the government is offering preferential treatment to Christians and minorities and not to Muslims, Mr. Harper said vulnerable communities in Syria are not exclusively Christian, but also include certain Muslim sects and other groups.

Mr. Harper was responding to a Globe and Mail story that revealed Canada aims to prioritize some Syrian refugees for processing based on characteristics that include their religion, the age of their children and whether they've run a business. The criteria, known as areas of focus, which had never been disclosed publicly, also favour those who speak English or French fluently; those residing outside refugee camps; and women between the ages of 20 and 40 who are victims of violence. Most of these categories also require refugees to have family in Canada, among other criteria.

This week The Globe also revealed that Mr. Harper ordered Citizenship and Immigration Canada to stop processing Syrian refugees referred by the United Nations, a halt that lasted several weeks in the midst of a global crisis.

Paul Champ, an Ottawa human rights lawyer, said the refugees referred to Canada by the UN agency are all vulnerable, and by choosing to prioritize some and not others the government could be running afoul of the law.

"My view is that it's clearly unconstitutional," Mr. Champ said. "When we are choosing from that group of refugees, we need to do so in a manner that's compliant with our constitution and our charter of rights … Why are certain ones being processed as a priority? It has to be legitimately connected to the individual being at greater risk.

"To try to differentiate between certain groups being more at risk in the context of the Syrian war makes no sense."

The groups are all vulnerable, and have all been determined to be vulnerable by the UN refugee agency, Mr. Champ said.

"It sounds to me like what the Prime Minister's Office is trying to do is prioritize Christian minorities coming out of Syria because those folks, we can be confident, aren't a security risk. But you can't start selecting based on religion and assuming that one group or another is going to be more or less dangerous," he added.

All files referred by the UN refugee agency to Canada must be processed, but the government's aim is to prioritize those that meet its areas of focus, while those that don't could be held back in the pile or sent through another approval process.

A government official who spoke on background said Thursday he disagreed that Canada's policy amounts to discrimination among refugees.

"We have clear areas of focus to set priorities for resettlement based on who is most vulnerable, who is at greatest risk of persecution, and who can best resettle in Canada," the official said. He added that these considerations "are very much in line with Canadian refugee policy."

Amir Attaran, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said it appears that these government policies are using attributes such as age and religion as selection criteria. "Any such distinction of race or age or religion, these are all prohibited under the law and we would be rightly offended if it were written to be against black people. But from a legal perspective we must be equally offended when it's written against the wrong religion or the wrong age," Prof. Attaran said.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said that the refugee revelations are the most recent example of the Conservatives' divisive policies.

Mr. Mulcair, who unveiled his party's platform in Montreal Friday, said his own family arrived in Quebec from Ireland during the height of the potato famine.

"Quebeckers, in a time of need, threw open their doors and let people in, the neediest on Earth. About 10 per cent of the entire population of Quebec City died from the ship-borne diseases," he said. "And yet people kept going down to the docks because these were the poorest and hungriest and neediest on Earth. That's the Canada I want to get back to."

At a campaign stop In Toronto, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said his party would not prioritize particular religious or ethnic minorities.

"To know that somewhere in the Prime Minister's Office, staffers were poring through their [the applicants'] personal files to try to find out which families would be suitable for a photo op for the Prime Minister's re-election campaign? That's disgusting," Mr. Trudeau told reporters.

Follow Joe Friesen on Twitter: @FriesenJoeOpens in a new window
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