Skip to main content

Omer Aziz is a writer, JD candidate at Yale Law School, and a fellow at the Yale Information Society Project. He worked most recently for the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria.

In the details of the Canadian government's plan to resettle Syrian refugees is a disturbing subtext of discrimination and exclusion that ought to give supporters of the policy a moment of pause.

The policy, as it stands today, is that straight, single men travelling alone will have their applications denied or deferred – as will orphans without relatives already in Canada – while families, religious minorities and LGBT individuals will be prioritized. In other words, the government has decided that the lives of some refugees are worth more than others.

Under this policy, Abdullah Kurdi, the father of beautiful little Alan, would be excluded because his wife and children died. The other Alan Kurdis without Canadian connections, whose names we do not know, might also be excluded.

The fact is that countless young men have been orphaned or widowed or rendered childless because of the chaos in Syria. Caught between the brutish terror of the Islamic State and the barbarous barrel bombs and torture chambers of President Bashar al-Assad, these young men have been among the thousands of Syrians walking out of the Middle East on foot, braving harsh waters for uncertain shores. IS targets minorities and gays. Mr. al-Assad mutilates and massacres anyone who dares to even question his rule.

To suggest that these men fleeing this nightmare need not be prioritized is indefensible.

When we choose to believe something about someone based on immutable traits such as race or ethnicity, that's bigotry. When based on legitimate concerns, such as security, discrimination is warranted. A sweating, nervous-looking man at an airport who is shifty in his answers can be reasonably detained and questioned regardless of his race or religion. But when a policy conflates actual concerns around security with temporarily fixed attributes such as age, marital status, lack of family – all beyond the individual's control – it slyly crosses the line from a necessary distinction into a dangerous one.

What such a policy insinuates is the sinister notion that a young, single, straight Muslim man might be a terrorist.

The fingerprints are all over the announced policy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said these cases were "slightly more complex," and had to be dealt with in a "responsible way" to "reassure Canadians" because "there will be a few people who will be surprisingly problematic." These are familiar code words. No polite Canadian would ever come out and equate young men with suicide-bombers because they happen to be in the same age group and have the same marital status; instead, we opt for euphemism. Had Stephen Harper outlined the exact same policy eight weeks ago, his now-successor would have condemned him, and with good cause.

Everyone agrees that there needs to be rigorous security checks and this policy includes a five-step process every refugee will go through, including individual interviews. Refugees will be screened first by United Nations officials, then by Canadian officials in Beirut and Amman, and again when they land in Canada.

The men who will be deferred could go through this exhaustive review process, but they are being pre-emptively relegated. Why? Because the government is afraid of seeming soft on security.

In Canada, a mosque has been torched, a woman wearing a hijab assaulted in front of her kids, another woman pushed on a subway platform. A season of xenophobia has descended on to North America and rather than combat it, the government grants its first premise.

I write this not as a man born to a Muslim family, nor a law student, but as the son of immigrants, whose father would have been denied entry into his beloved country had he been a refugee under this policy. If this is the true North, strong and free, we have a duty to all vulnerable people not to succumb to paranoia when opening our doors.

One of these neglected boys might be a future Nobel Prize winner, a Canadian war hero or, indeed, a prime minister. We owe it to him not to be afraid.

Interact with The Globe