Ten members of Syria’s famed White Helmets rescue group – who were supposed to have been resettled to Canada last fall – are being kept, along with their families, in semi-isolation in a special high-security zone of Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp while they await the outcome of a delicate diplomatic effort to find a country willing to take them in.
The reason for their limbo remains a closely guarded secret. Neither the Canadian nor Jordanian government answered questions from The Globe and Mail about the specific reasons the families were flagged as security risks by Canadian officials who visited Azraq last year.
A spokeswoman for the Jordan office of the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, said the focus is now on trying to find another country willing to accept them, an effort hindered by Canada’s assessment of the families.
A member of the White Helmets told The Globe that the families themselves did not know why they were still in Jordan. A reporter was not allowed to visit the part of the Azraq camp where the 10 families, 48 people in all, are being held.
Azraq, a vast field of tin shacks surrounded by metal fencing, is frequently compared to an open-air prison, with the camp’s 35,000 residents needing a permit to leave the camp, even briefly. The White Helmets families are being kept in what’s known as Village 2, the second-most secure part of Azraq. It’s an area off-limits to foreign reporters, one separated from other parts of the camp by several hundred metres of barren desert.
“We can never go out” of Village 2, said a White Helmets member who communicated with The Globe via text. He was granted anonymity so he wouldn’t face repercussions from Jordanian authorities. “We must respect the laws and regulations of Jordan while we are in their hospitality,” he said.
The White Helmets – who became famous by rescuing victims of air strikes carried out by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies – are considered among the few heroes of the Syrian civil war. They have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and were the subjects of an Oscar-winning documentary.
Because they film their rescue operations and post the videos online, they have played a crucial role in raising public awareness about the brutality of the war and the tactics – including the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs – deployed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian and Russian governments, meanwhile, claim the group is both a tool of Western intelligence and closely aligned with some of the armed groups fighting to oust Mr. al-Assad.
The government of Jordan granted The Globe permission to visit Azraq, but the authorization letter specifically stated that Village 2 – along with the even higher-security Village 5 – was out of bounds. The Globe was accompanied throughout the visit by a Jordanian security official who refused to answer questions about Village 2.
The 10 White Helmets families were supposed to have come last fall to Canada, which helped organize the group’s dramatic escape from Syria last summer. But as the anniversary of their July 21 extrication approaches, the 48 Syrians remain in Azraq, their applications for asylum red-flagged by Canadian officials.
The families were among 422 Syrians who escaped from the southern province of Daraa last summer, hours before the area was recaptured by the Assad regime. Mr. al-Assad’s forces have regularly and specifically attacked the White Helmets, treating the rescuers, most of whom are volunteers, as military targets.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told The Globe this month that the 10 families had not been formally rejected by Canada and could yet be approved once extended “due diligence” was concluded.
Diplomatic and aid-community sources told The Globe that the array of concerns about the families ranged from the relatively minor – such as having photographs of armed men on their mobile phones – to the extremely complex, including affiliations with the myriad groups that have fought in the civil war.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he could not comment on the cases of the 10 families because they relate to “operational matters.” He would only speak generally about the government’s refugee-vetting process.
“When anyone comes to Canada, we do our very best to make sure we, being CSIS, the RCMP and CBSA and all of the other security agencies of the government of Canada, to make sure that Canada is kept absolutely safe and secure,” he told reporters on Parliament Hill this month.
The Globe asked the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) about its assessment of the White Helmets, but the agency said it cannot publicly share security advice because it is considered classified. CSIS spokesman John Townsend said that while the agency provides security advice to the Immigration Department and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the decision regarding a refugee claimant’s case lies with the department and the CBSA. Neither responded to a request for comment.
A red flag about one relative is enough to stall an entire family’s resettlement.
“It’s a very sensitive situation. I think they are seen as a bit different from the other refugees in the camp because of the circumstances under which they arrived,” said Lilly Carlisle, a spokeswoman for the Jordan office of the UNHCR. Her agency, she added, was now “working with additional resettlement countries such as Sweden, France and the Netherlands” to find new homes for the 10 families.
The White Helmets member who communicated with The Globe said none of the 10 families had been told why their move to Canada had been delayed. He said the prolonged limbo was wearing on the families, who thought they would have started new lives in Canada or Europe by now. “I never expected our situation would be like this," he wrote. "All of us are in a difficult psychological situation.”
The Jordanian government did not respond to e-mailed questions about the White Helmets’ case or why reporters were not allowed to visit Village 2.
Western diplomats and aid workers with knowledge of the case, who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly, said Jordanian officials were initially worried that the White Helmets would face a hostile reception from the other refugees in Azraq, in part because they had escaped Syria via Israel with the aid of the Israeli military, which ferried them across the Golan Heights to Jordan. That fear has proved unfounded so far.
The White Helmets’ situation is actually an improvement over the early days of their stay in Jordan. Ms. Carlisle said all 422 who escaped from Syria last July were initially taken to Village 5 – which is separated from the rest of Azraq by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire – while Jordanian intelligence investigated their identities and backgrounds. Their move to Village 2 suggests the Jordanians do not consider them to be top-level security risks. Israel also screened the refugees before they were allowed to cross into the Golan Heights.
The unresolved cases are nonetheless considered a highly sensitive issue in Jordan, which only agreed to take part in the July rescue after receiving assurances that all 422 would be rapidly resettled to Canada, Germany or Britain within three months. (Jordan closed its border with Syria in 2015 after taking in more than 650,000 refugees and only reopened it late last year.)
But while Germany and Britain resettled their cases within the agreed time frame – and after 117 White Helmets and their families arrived in Canada last year, admitted on humanitarian grounds – Canadian officials who travelled to Azraq to interview the applicants discovered red flags with the remaining 10 cases, leaving the families in limbo as Jordan grows increasingly impatient with their presence.
Azraq has a bad reputation among aid workers because of its remote and inhospitable location, a 75-minute drive into the desert east of the capital, Amman. Unlike the larger Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border, there are no population centres near Azraq where refugees can find work to supplement the roughly $38 a person they receive each month from the UNHCR.
The White Helmets and their families are not the only ones in Azraq who have seen their hopes of a new life in Canada dim. Several Syrian families in other parts of the camp told The Globe they had been contacted in 2015 and 2016 during the Liberal government’s signature refugee-resettlement program. The plan saw 40,000 Syrians resettled from the refugee camps of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, including 25,000 who were flown to Canada over a three-month period between December, 2015, and February, 2016.
Marwa al-Qadri, a 37-year-old former resident of Damascus, said she and her husband and four children had been screened by both the UNHCR and Canadian officials in February, 2016, and told they had been approved for resettlement. But more than three years later, the family has grown to seven people and they’re all still in Azraq.
“We were always waiting. Airplanes would leave to [take refugees] to Canada, and we would wait for a call, hoping to be on the next plane. But no one ever called.”
Ms. al-Qadri estimated there were about 30 families in Azraq with similar stories. It was impossible for The Globe to verify their accounts.
“Every time my four-year-old son sees an airplane, he asks me, ‘When are we going to Canada?’ ” said Hamdeh Mahmood al-Hussein, a 40-year-old father of six from the battle-scarred province of Idlib, in northwestern Syria.
Like Ms. al-Qadri, Mr. al-Hussein said he was told in December, 2015, that he and his family had been approved for resettlement – after interviews with both UNHCR officials in Amman, then with Canadian officials who carried out final checks – but he never got the call telling them it was their turn to fly to Canada.
“It has become like a dream. Maybe when we are old and walking on canes, we will finally get to Canada.”
With a report from Michelle Zilio in Ottawa
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