Canada promised to shepherd hundreds of Syria’s famed White Helmet medics and their families to new homes in the West, pledging to “let no one be left behind.” Nearly 2½ years later, it’s a bargain that remains unfulfilled for dozens of the Syrians who only got as far as a refugee camp in Jordan before being stalled by security concerns.
New insights into the 2018 operation led by Canada’s global affairs department have been gleaned from interviews and almost 1,000 pages of government e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The documents shed light on the high-profile effort by the Liberal government to resettle a group of rescuers caught in the crush of Syria’s civil war – a much trumpeted story at the time for then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland.
The White Helmets are volunteer medics who work in Syria’s rebel-held areas. Canada negotiated safe passage and safe haven for hundreds of them. Overnight on July 21-22, 2018, a group of 422 volunteers and their families fled their war-torn country by crossing into Israeli-controlled territory, before being bused to Jordan.
Most of them lingered there for only a matter of weeks before being resettled in Britain, Germany and Canada, among other countries. But 10 families remain stuck in a United Nations-run refugee camp in Azraq, Jordan, where they speak of Ottawa’s security officials keeping them in stasis and of having no country to call home. One of those trapped in Azraq says the number of people in the 10 families has grown as babies have been born in the desolate refugee camp.
As of late October sources close to the White Helmets said there were 52 people stranded in Jordan. Canadian government officials would not speak to precise numbers but stressed they could change at any time because resettlement negotiations were continuing.
But the extended uncertainty for these families is clearly at odds with past pledges from Canadian officials. “We have reaffirmed at the highest level Canada’s willingness to ‘let no one be left behind,’ ” Global Affairs assistant deputy minister Mark Gwozdecky wrote on the eve of the evacuation mission.
That message was on July 19, 2018. Today, Ottawa officials will not say which “highest levels” Mr. Gwozdecky was invoking.
But his e-mails to U.S. and British diplomatic allies in the effort, were clear. “Canada will make good on its promise to be the backstop of this operation in terms of ensuring all who arrive in Jordan will get asylum,” he wrote.
For privacy reasons, the federal immigration department isn’t releasing numbers, names or resettlement locations of the White Helmet families who got to Canada. But these families are now on the cusp of being allowed to become Canadian citizens, a status that they can apply for starting next summer.
Nor will the department speak about why some of the White Helmets who were evacuated at the same time still linger in a refugee camp in Jordan. The suggestion is that they may end up in other countries.
Screening agents from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) helped vet members of the White Helmet migrant group.
“We continue working with our international partners on the successful resettlement of those who have been evacuated from Syria,” Béatrice Fénelon, spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said in October. “Generally speaking, CSIS and CBSA provide security advice to IRCC. … Individuals must meet the admissibility requirements, which includes security and medical checks, before Canada can accept them for resettlement.”
This limbo is a counterpoint to the urgency that once surrounded the operation. Canada has not had a functioning embassy in Syria since civil war broke out nearly a decade ago. Yet during the first three weeks of July, 2018, Canadian diplomats in London, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Amman, Istanbul, New York and Washington urgently pressed world leaders to open up their hearts and borders to the White Helmets.
The volunteer medics had won fame and acclaim for their work of rushing into ruins to help civilians. Yet this activity also drew the ire of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government branded them as insurgents and terrorists.
Mr. al-Assad once seemed on the verge of being defeated in the conflict. But the tides started to turn in 2015 as Russia intervened on his side. The regime started recapturing swaths of Syria. By the summer of 2018, Ottawa’s envoys began to fear the worst for the White Helmets.
“Russia and the regime are their main antagonists and those most likely to intercept/harm them,” wrote Canadian diplomat Robin Wettlaufer from Istanbul in an e-mail earlier that July. Working closely with the White Helmet leadership at the time, she wrote that the group had “a target on their foreheads” because of their “indispensable role” in documenting chemical weapons use.
Amid the regime’s re-invasion of south Syria, the message being put out by Global Affairs was that Canada – which had donated millions to the group – had a “moral obligation” to work in world capitals to secure safe passage for group members who wanted out.
One crucial part of the plan was that White Helmet evacuees would need a regional waystation where they could await screening. “Would Jordan be willing to facilitate their passage across the border and onward transit to Canada?” read an e-mail from Gavin Buchan, a Canadian diplomat based in Amman, 10 days before the evacuation.
Jordan agreed and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was soon onboard too. Days before the evacuation, Canadian diplomats wrote that the UNHCR agreed to use its camps to accommodate “the White Helmets refugees during their short stay in Jordan.”
But the promise of a short stay proved presumptuous, in large part because the diplomats making the vow weren’t in control of the resettlement process. That job belongs to federal immigration officials, who make case-by-case “admissibility” assessments with CSIS and the CBSA.
The problem for the White Helmet evacuees left in the UNHCR camp in Azraq appears to be that these Canadian departments have never had a comfort level about accommodating them. The precise reasons why have never been explained, not even to the Syrians themselves.
But even the UN says it is time for them to move on. “There remain some families in Jordan despite the bilateral assurances of onward movement from the states that sponsored their evacuation from Syria,” Lily Carlisle, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Jordan, said in September. “We encourage a resolution of this situation as soon as possible.”
White Helmets leaders also say this process has stretched on for far too long. “Canada promised all of them would be resettled within three months,” Farouq Habib, a senior member of the White Helmets, said in October.
Speaking in a telephone interview, he recalled how he got out of Syria years before the exodus, but helped out at border crossings during the 2018 evacuation.
“We remain grateful for what Canada did and particularly Minster Freeland. We were desperate and Canada gave us hope,” said Mr. Habib, who now lives in Montreal.
But no one should forget the evacuees in Jordan, he said. “We’re not criticizing Canada, but we are disappointed that operation has not concluded yet.”
The group of 422 White Helmets who left south Syria consisted of several dozen of the rescue workers but were mostly made up of their spouses and children. Israeli soldiers escorted them through the disputed Golan Heights territory before placing them on a convoy of buses to Jordan, where screening interviews were conducted.
They arrived pre-screened, which means they underwent scrutiny by several countries before they were allowed to leave Syria.
The evacuees who are left behind today linger in a desert-surrounded sea of tin shacks and metal fencing that holds a total of more than 35,000 refugees from Mideast conflicts.
When a Globe and Mail reporter visited the UNHCR camp in 2019, he was blocked from visiting the White Helmet evacuees. This past September one of them sent a text saying babies have been born to the families there. “We are the victims of this so-called humanitarian operation,” said the source. The Globe is not identifying them because of fears of retribution by the Jordanian authorities.
Canada’s immigration laws can be tough on people who flee civil war. For example, people suspected of ties to groups involved in efforts to overthrow “any state” can legally be considered persona non grata.
But the reasons for the red flags have never been revealed. The released records do show that on July 15, 2018 – a week before the evacuation – Ottawa officials held an interdepartmental meeting to discuss “the urgent evacuation and eventual resettlement of the White Helmets.”
It wasn’t just diplomats and immigration officials who attended. Security agencies such as CSIS, the CBSA and even representatives of Canada’s electronic interception agency, Communications Security Establishment, were there.
One takeaway from the meeting was that diplomats and civil servants would need to work together to funnel detailed information about the White Helmet evacuees and their families into security databases. “Also if phone and/or email addresses [redacted] can be obtained, that would be most helpful to the agencies,” a follow-up GAC memo said.
The White Helmets leaders were pressed to refine their lists of prospective evacuees. It was chaotic work for a war zone where passports were unobtainable.
“This is a heartbreaking exercise,” wrote Ms. Wettlaufer on July 16. In an e-mail titled “Culling the list,” the Canadian diplomat added the White Helmets were “effectively deciding who lives (and gets a golden ticket to a new life) and who may die or worse (capture/torture).”
“It was really, really difficult,” recalls Mr. Habib, the White Helmet leader who was assisting the effort. Canada and other governments, he said, kept asking “for more and more information from our colleagues, while not giving them any firm promises.”
Many in south Syria “lost confidence" in the rescue effort, he said, and others were blocked from getting to checkpoints. On the evacuation night, only about half as many White Helmet members materialized with their families as had been anticipated.
Today some of the White Helmets who never left Syria are in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last pocket of territory held by rebels. Some of those who stayed in the south of the country, Mr. Habib said, were arrested, interrogated and made to denounce the group.
- In the spring of 2018, Canadian diplomats floated a “crazy” idea – resettling “50, 100, 200” White Helmets (WH) to Canada.
- On July, 11, 2018, then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland made an “impassioned plea” for co-operation to her counterparts at a dinner for NATO foreign ministers. (In documents, Ms. Freeland is referred to as MINA – or Minister of International Affairs, an earlier name for the portfolio.)
- An assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs Canada relayed to U.S. and British allies on the eve of the evacuation that the Canadian government at the “highest level” would quarterback the effort and leave no evacuee behind.
- On the ground, the White Helmets in Syria had been directed to make hard choices about evacuees – including who would get a “golden ticket to a new life.” And who would not.
- The evacuees still had to clear screening hurdles prior to entering Canada and other countries.
- When the exodus happened overnight on July 21, 2018, fewer White Helmets and their families crossed than were anticipated because some “were blocked from getting to the border.”
- After the evacuation, Canadian diplomats noted that Syrian intelligence officials set up a unit to “identify, interrogate, detain” White Helmet volunteers.
- On July 25, 2018, Ms. Freeland send an e-mail titled “Thank you,” applauding dozens of Global Affairs diplomats and civil servants for the “crucial role” they played.
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