Ten members of Syria’s White Helmets and their families are still living in a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert, with their applications for asylum in Canada stalled over security concerns, nearly a year after the federal government won plaudits for leading the operation to save them.
They were among 422 people who escaped southern Syria last July in a one-day operation that was concluded just as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who have repeatedly targeted the White Helmets throughout the conflict, recaptured the rebel-held Daraa region. The White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group, gained fame for their collective bravery while trying to save victims of Syria’s eight-year-old civil war.
The international rescue, which saw Israel open its heavily militarized border in the Golan Heights so that the White Helmets could be whisked to safety in neighbouring Jordan, was a diplomatic triumph for Ottawa, with Canadian diplomats – including Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland – heralded for helping make it happen.
But nearly a year later, Ms. Freeland finds herself at the centre of another complicated diplomatic endeavour: trying to resolve the fate of the 10 families who remain in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, long after the Jordanian government had been promised they’d be resettled to one of Canada, Germany or Britain.
Germany and Britain have each taken in their agreed share of the 422 evacuees, and Canada resettled 117 of the Syrians last year (Ms. Freeland’s office declined to say how many refugees total Canada agreed to resettle). But 10 families – at least 42 people – remain in Azraq, an austere tent city 80 kilometres east of Amman that’s also home to more than 30,000 other Syrians.
Four sources with direct knowledge of the situation, who were granted anonymity by The Globe and Mail because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the 10 families were rejected by Canada over security concerns that were uncovered by Canadian officials who travelled to Jordan to interview the White Helmets and their families. Canada, the sources said, was now trying to find another country or countries willing to accept the families.
However, Ms. Freeland said in a phone interview that saying the 10 families had been rejected by Canada was “putting the cart before the horse.” She said the cases were still under review.
“The reality is these are people who survived in an incredibly difficult, incredibly chaotic environment,” she said. “They were living really in the cauldron of a civil war, and they had to flee, very many of them, with just the clothes on their backs. Those two realities mean, I think quite understandably, that doing due diligence can take a long time.”
“One thing that we have found is other partner countries from around the world have become aware of the situation of the White Helmets, and have real sympathy for that situation. So, we are also working with other countries who are interested in being part of this effort.”
One source with knowledge of the situation said in at least two of the 10 cases, the families were denied entry to Canada because immigration screeners found photographs of armed individuals – something many Syrians would have simply from living in a war zone since 2011 – on their mobile phones.
Ms. Freeland said she couldn’t talk about specifics of the cases or confirm the exact number of White Helmets still waiting in Jordan.
Jordan is showing signs of exasperation with the delay. The country already hosted 655,000 registered Syrian refugees on its soil before the White Helmets arrived, but the actual number of Syrians in Jordan is often estimated to be twice as large.
Foreign Affairs Minister Ayman Safadi said earlier this year the White Helmets had only been allowed into the country “on a transit basis, after some Western countries made binding written commitments they would relocate them out of the kingdom.”
Mr. Safadi told Russia’s Sputnik news agency that 42 members of the White Helmets and their families were still in the country as of January, a number that one source said had grown closer to 50, as children have been born in the refugee camp.
“From the very beginning, we said that we will not accept them as refugees. We said they will not stay in Jordan,” Mr. Safadi said.
The situation risks turning a diplomatic triumph into something of an embarrassment for Canada, given that it was Ms. Freeland who embraced the cause of the trapped White Helmets last summer, making an impassioned speech to a gathering of NATO foreign ministers that helped rally support for the international rescue mission.
“Everyone who’s involved in the process is very keen this doesn’t become an issue that languishes,” James Le Mesurier, a former British army officer who helped found the White Helmets in 2014, said of the 10 families still in Jordan. “There’s a lot of diplomatic engagement, a lot of personal commitment.”
The fact the 10 cases were rejected by Canada because of security concerns awkwardly fits with a narrative advanced by Mr. al-Assad’s regime and its allies: that the White Helmets are not the civilian heroes that Western governments have made them out to be. The Assad regime and Russia have both claimed for years that the White Helmets were de facto participants in Syria’s war, with ties to Islamist fighters opposed to Mr. al-Assad.
Ms. Freeland said the Syrian and Russian propaganda regarding the White Helmets was intended to discredit one of the few groups able to shine a light on the brutal methods that Syrian and Russian forces have used to crush the anti-Assad opposition.
The group’s practice of making videos of its rescue operations and posting them online helped stir international outrage against the Assad regime over the course of the war. Videos made by the White Helmets also provided the initial evidence – later substantiated by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – that the regime had used chemical weapons against its opponents.
“In a way, those smears [by Russia and the Assad regime] are a badge of honour for the White Helmets organization, because they are a direct result of their work in rescuing civilians, and also of their work in documenting atrocities and war crimes,” Ms. Freeland said.
The war, meanwhile, grinds on. While Mr. al-Assad’s forces have recaptured much of Syria, Turkish-backed opposition forces still control most of Idlib province, in the northwest of the country, while U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters have carved out a de facto autonomous zone east of the Euphrates River.
Mr. al-Assad’s forces, supported by Russian warplanes, have recently launched an assault on rebel-held Idlib, meaning that the White Helmets who remain in the country are once more on the front lines of a conflict that has already killed more than 500,000 people and driven millions more from their homes.
Mr. Le Mesurier said there were about 2,800 volunteer White Helmets still active in Syria, 2,300 of whom are in and around the Idlib region. On Thursday, the group posted one video of its rescuers pulling the dead bodies of a father and his infant daughter from the ruins of a building in southern Idlib. The group said the video was taken “after air strikes by regime warplanes.”
Another video posted Thursday showed White Helmets working to rescue a young boy from the aftermath of another air strike while his brother lay dead in the rubble beside him. Earlier this month, a White Helmets’ rescue centre in Idlib was destroyed in another air strike that the group believes was intentional.
“The Syrian regime and its allies continue to target rescue workers and medical facilities as an essential part of their military campaign,” Mr. Le Mesurier said. “The White Helmets continue doing whatever they can, whenever they can, for as long as they can.”