Three years after Canada promised to find permanent homes for hundreds of rescue workers and their family members who were evacuated from Syria during its civil war, dozens of adults and children remain stuck in a Middle East refugee camp where their mental and physical health is deteriorating, according to federal officials.
Newly released documents about the Canadian-led evacuation of members of the famed White Helmets rescue group shed new light on a saga of bureaucratic paralysis in Ottawa. The inaction has left 43 evacuees stranded in Jordan, despite what federal officials have described as “political and moral commitments” to them. Among other promises, Canada pledged to resettle them within three months after they escaped Syria.
Global Affairs Canada internally circulated e-mails and memos about the stranded White Helmet evacuees last fall. The Globe and Mail recently obtained those documents under the Access to Information Act. They reveal new and specific concerns about the evacuees’ continuing plight, and corroborate what sources inside Jordan’s desolate Azraq refugee camp have repeatedly told The Globe over the past three years.
“This cohort remaining in Jordan are under severe psychological and social stress, fearing for the security and the future of their families,” reads an internal GAC e-mail dated Nov. 23 of last year.
The memo notes that because the White Helmets were brought into Jordan under an agreement with Canada, rather than through standard refugee processes, they have even fewer rights and entitlements than others living in Azraq, a United Nations-managed refugee camp composed of a field of tin shacks in the desert near Jordan’s border with Syria. “The WH cannot, unlike refugees, access health care facilities outside the camp in case of need,” the memo says. “Half the individuals have serious untreated health care issues.”
The GAC materials also make clear that the evacuees are not permitted to work and have no income to pay for anything beyond bare essentials. “Morale is extremely low and intra-group tensions are running high with distrust rampant as each wonders why they have not been resettled and who is responsible,” the memo says.
Forty three evacuees remain in Azraq, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Members of the group say that number includes 28 children, eight of whom are under the age of three.
They were among 422 people associated with the White Helmets who were spirited away from southern Syria during a July, 2018, evacuation operation that was credited at the time to interventions from Chrystia Freeland, who was then Canada’s foreign minister and is now deputy prime minister.
At the time, Canadian diplomats led urgent international negotiations that successfully opened borders for the White Helmets and their families to escape Syria before forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s regime reclaimed the rebel-held territories the rescue group had been working in.
The White Helmets became famous in rebel-held regions of Syria for volunteering to rescue victims of air strikes carried out by the Assad regime and its Russian allies. They are considered by the West to be among the few heroes of that civil war.
Speaking at a NATO summit just before the evacuation, Ms. Freeland told her fellow foreign ministers that they had a moral obligation to rescue the White Helmets, whose operations had received financial support from Canada and other Western governments. Most of the evacuees were quickly resettled to countries such as Canada, Germany and Britain. But the 43 who now remain in Jordan, members of eight families, were left behind and effectively abandoned.
Federal officials have never revealed why they have blocked these families from resettling in Canada. The stranded evacuees say that security screening processes have kept them in limbo. Immigration experts have said that, if this is true, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has potential recourse to an extraordinary legal power known as “ministerial relief,” which could end the evacuees’ ordeal and open a path to Canada.
But this has never happened for reasons that remain unclear. Mr. Blair’s office did not reply to questions about whether he is considering using ministerial relief, and whether public safety officials ever completed the security screenings of the stranded evacuees they launched three years ago. “It takes time to carry out due diligence, especially in a situation that has been impacted by a global pandemic,” said Madeleine Gomery, a spokesperson for the minister.
The newly released materials from GAC say that Canadian officials signed a document in 2018 assuring Jordan that the White Helmet evacuees would stay in that country for a maximum of three months.
Asked recently why it did not live up to this undertaking, GAC would not say. “We continue working with our international partners on the successful resettlement of those who have been evacuated from Syria,” GAC spokesperson Lama Khodr said.
Meanwhile, the remaining White Helmet evacuees are in increasing distress. A source among the group said that many among the eight families were suffering from depression and other chronic health issues.
The source, whom The Globe is not naming because they fear retribution from Jordanian authorities, said the group thought they were finally about to receive some good news last month, when they were told a delegation from the Canadian embassy in Jordan was coming to visit them in Azraq.
Diplomatic visits had been on hold since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the visit consisted only of medical checks. And there was no news from Canadian officials about whether the group’s purgatory in Jordan might soon come to an end.
The newly released documents show the federal government’s strategy is to pay out small stipends to families who remain in Azraq.
In an e-mail sent last November, Sean Boyd, GAC’s executive director of Middle East relations, argued – one week after The Globe had published a detailed article on the evacuees’ plight – that Canada should route $155,000 to the International Migration Organization. That way, he said, the IMO could help pay for the evacuees’ visits to doctors, and also give them some English language and computer training.
“Recognizing that the current circumstances of these White Helmets stems from the fact that Canada has not been able to follow through on its original commitments regarding timely resettlement, the proposed initiative would provide support to mitigate the negative humanitarian impacts,” Mr. Boyd wrote.
Working via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Canada has repeatedly sought to find another country willing to take in the White Helmets. Sources with direct knowledge, whom The Globe is not identifying because they are not authorized to speak publicly, say the effort has been hindered by Canada’s refusal to explain why it won’t take in the eight families.
Under federal immigration laws in Canada, foreigners suspected of ties to any insurgency are barred from entering the country. The law specifically blocks anyone suspected of ever “engaging in or instigating the subversion by force of any government.”
This clause could be at the root of the federal government’s reluctance, given that some White Helmets have admitted to having fought in anti-Assad militias before they put down their weapons to join the rescue group.
Two sources with direct knowledge say the government’s security concerns include minor issues, such as photographs of combatants found on the phones of the evacuees – a type of memento often possessed by people who have been living in war zones. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The former White Helmets members in Azraq say that even if Canadian law prohibits them from being accepted as refugees, their families should not be punished. “We as men, if there is something on our files, we accept that they put us in a prison in Canada or under surveillance or anything,” said one of the White Helmet evacuees. “But I ask the Canadian government to work on the happiness of boys, girls and women.”
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