The world cheered Canada in 2018 for helping lead a celebrated rescue of some of Syria’s famed White Helmets. But today, almost three years later, 43 of the evacuees that Canada agreed to resettle are still trapped in a desolate Jordanian refugee camp.
The adults in this group say their ranks include 28 children – among them eight infants and toddlers born in the camp who would have been raised as Canadians had Ottawa delivered on its promises. Instead, they are being reared in Azraq, a United Nations-managed refugee camp that amounts to a field of tin shacks in the desert near Jordan’s border with Syria.
One of the White Helmets members still in Azraq told The Globe and Mail that the children have no passports and are being raised in a state of “extreme misery” – with the families still clinging to the promise that they will eventually be allowed to move to Canada.
The Jordanian government and the United Nations have expressed frustration with the stalemate and Canada’s role in it – and newly released records from 2018 reveal that the complex evacuation and resettlement effort was never supposed to turn out like this.
The documents show that Canada’s then-immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, signed off on an urgent plan to spirit 50 White Helmets workers, plus their families and children, away from the Middle East for rapid resettlement to Canada.
In this correspondence, Mr. Hussen was told he had to act fast because the White Helmets – who regularly risked their lives to save civilians and document war crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria – were “at immediate risk of detention, torture and execution” that summer as Mr. al-Assad’s forces and their Russian allies recaptured what had been rebel-held southern Syria and were targeting critics as they moved south.
The urgency was such that the minister was asked by his deputy to exercise his powers “as soon as possible” to clear any bureaucratic roadblocks that could impede the path to Canada. In the memo to Mr. Hussen, the White Helmets are credited with having “saved an estimated 114,000 lives.”
Ninety-eight White Helmets members and their families – 422 people in all – reached Jordan in the summer of 2018, after travelling via the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights thanks to a diplomatic bolthole that Canada was lauded for helping create.
Most members of this group have since been resettled to Germany, Britain and also Canada. The Immigration Department says it allowed in “nearly 100” evacuees to Canada, a rough estimate comprising an undisclosed number of White Helmets volunteer “principals,” plus their spouses and children.
Yet Canada has also left behind eight White Helmets members and their families in Jordan whom it was supposed to take without telling them why. Part of the reason for this may be that while Mr. Hussen waived what amounted to refugee red tape – regulations related to fees, forms and formal sponsors – he and his cabinet colleagues are not known to have exercised any overrides against the immigration laws governing who is considered “inadmissible” to Canada.
Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, foreigners suspected of ties to any insurgency are barred from entering Canada. The law specifically blocks anyone suspected of ever “engaging in or instigating the subversion by force of any government.”
This clause could be a significant barrier, given that some White Helmets have admitted to having fought in anti-Assad militias before they put down their weapons to join the rescue workers. Two sources with direct knowledge of the matter said the security concerns include more minor issues, such as photographs of combatants found on the phones of the evacuees – which is not uncommon for people who had been living in a war zone. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
It is not clear precisely what Canadian concerns are at play in Jordan. The White Helmets in Azraq say they have never been told why their admissions to Canada were put on hold. They also say they haven’t seen or heard from a Canadian diplomat since before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Globe is not identifying the White Helmets members out of concern they could face persecution in Jordan.
“I received news from my friend in Canada that Canadian security is opposed to resettling us. Why [when] they are the ones who helped us keep our children and wives safe from the massacres of the Assad regime?” said one White Helmet member in the camp. “The kids are tired of a lot of bad living conditions here.”
Federal officials say they are still trying to find homes for these refugees – somewhere. “We continue working with our international partners on the successful resettlement of those who have been evacuated from Syria,” said Patricia Skinner, spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada. She said the government has maintained contact with the White Helmets organization to the extent allowed by restrictions in place prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The refugee resettlement issues in Jordan are the unintended fallout of an evacuation effort that Canadian government officials had dubbed Operation White Helmet. In this acclaimed July, 2018, mission, officials from several departments rallied international allies to the cause of creating a temporary escape route.
Syria’s civil war, which began in 2011, killed at least 400,000 people before the UN acknowledged in 2016 that it could no longer keep accurate count of the figure. The White Helmets operated as volunteer medics in rebel-held areas, assisting people suffering from bullet wounds, bomb blasts, or left under the rubble of blown-up buildings.
Working with European countries, Canada financially supported the White Helmets – including, records show, by sending salary stipends of US$150 a month to more than 200 female members.
Yet once the tides of war turned, it was feared that the White Helmets workers – and especially the women Canada had funded – could bear the brunt of regime reprisals.
“As of July 20, 2018, the [Immigration] Department has identified 50 cases for resettlement to Canada and has signalled its intention to Global Affairs Canada,” reads the deputy minister’s memo sent to Mr. Hussen, which was released to The Globe under the Access to Information Act. “Cases were selected based on family ties in Canada and links to other departmental conditions specifically women and girls at risk.”
The minister then signed off on what became known as a “temporary public policy for the resettlement of the White Helmets.” This order relaxed some standard rules around refugees having documents, paperwork and being able to prove they were suitable candidates to live in Canada. Mr. Hussen deemed the evacuees’ past work for the White Helmets was proof enough for him.
“The organization has saved an estimated 114,000 lives,” reads the order he signed. “I hereby establish that there are sufficient public policy considerations justifying granting exemptions.”
Yet the correspondence also cautioned Mr. Hussen – who is now the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development – that an immigration minister cannot override the security-screening processes that exist in law. And these processes are controlled by a distinct ministry, Public Safety Canada, which sent its agents to the Azraq refugee camp to make its own admissibility assessments.
Today, the results of these processes are unknown to the evacuees still there. And the federal government won’t say how many White Helmets “principals” ever got to Canada, citing the safety and privacy of the evacuees.
In November, Canadian officials said they negotiated the resettlement of one White Helmets family in Azraq to an undisclosed third country.
Another senior member of the White Helmets who was part of the 2018 evacuation – only to see his family kept in Azraq for more than two years over unspecified security concerns – was flown to Germany with his family in December. German media reported that Jordan’s King Abdullah II personally intervened with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the case.
The 43 who remain in Azraq are kept in a highly secure part of the camp and prevented from mingling with other refugees. The measure, which was originally intended to protect them from potential Assad sympathizers in the camp, also prevents them from seeking jobs.
They survive on donated food and fuel. The White Helmets member still in the refugee camp said two of the women in their group had developed thyroid disease.
All this is at odds with the exceptional urgency and unequivocal promises that once characterized Canada’s role in negotiating the evacuation.
“We have reaffirmed at the highest level Canada’s willingness to let no one be left behind,” senior Global Affairs civil servant Mark Gwozdecky wrote in a 2018 eve-of-the-evacuation e-mail sent to U.S. and British counterparts. In these previously disclosed records, he added that “all who arrive in Jordan will get asylum.”