The federal government has the tools to pave a path to Canada for dozens of White Helmet migrants stuck at a Jordanian refugee camp, according to a leading immigration expert.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair could potentially invoke a power known as “ministerial relief” to find Canadian homes for these evacuees if doing so is the priority that the Liberal government has indicated that it is, according to Lorne Waldman, a prominent lawyer and author of immigration-law books.
“Why shouldn’t they be allowed to come to Canada when the minister has the power?" he asked.
On Monday, The Globe and Mail reported on newly released government e-mails regarding a celebrated July, 2018, mission where Canadian diplomats led an international effort to shepherd 422 people away from the Syrian civil war as President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces reclaimed rebel territory.
Most of the evacuees – volunteer medics known as “White Helmets” and their accompanying family members – were quickly relocated to Britain, Germany, Canada and other Western countries that had also been backing the group. The medics had won fame and acclaim for their work of rushing into ruins to help civilians within Syria’s rebel-held territories. Yet this activity also drew the ire of Mr. al-Assad, whose government branded them as insurgents and terrorists.
By this October about 10 evacuee families remained in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. Numbering then around 50 people in total, they have remained in limbo long after Canada promised a speedy resettlement process.
Federal officials will not speak to details beyond saying that talks continue. "We know that the White Helmets and their families have made important sacrifices. They have not been forgotten,” said Mary-Liz Power, a spokeswoman for Mr. Blair.
One evacuee family has been resettled from Jordan in recent weeks, she said, but she would not say how many or to where. “Canada has rigorously pursued a variety of resettlement options,” Ms. Power said. She added that “there are still some families for whom this work is ongoing."
Federal government security-screening agents vet potential immigrants' backgrounds to ensure they do not pose a threat. Anyone who is flagged as a security concern can be deemed “inadmissible" and blocked from coming to Canada.
The remaining evacuees in Jordan say these processes have blocked their intended passage to Canada. But government officials will not say whether Canadian agencies have come to any conclusions.
Only negative findings by federal agents would make ministerial relief an option, Mr. Waldman said. This law would allow for Mr. Blair to potentially intervene by overruling his own agents and making the migrants admissible to Canada in the name of “the national interest.”
“Surely if Canada was campaigning to save them it was because they believed it was in the national interest, ” Mr. Waldman said.
In July, 2018, Canadian diplomats prevailed on several allied countries to open up their borders so that the White Helmet evacuees could have safe passage out of Syria. The initial agreement was that the 422 migrants would be lodged – temporarily – at United Nations camps in Jordan
“We have reaffirmed at the highest level Canada’s willingness ‘to let no one be left behind,' ” a senior Global Affairs Canada civil servant wrote on the eve of the evacuation effort. Mark Gwozdecky also wrote that “all who arrive in Jordan will get asylum.”
One year later, then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland said that several evacuee families staying in Jordan were still under review by Canadian officials. “They had to flee, very many of them, with just the clothes on their backs … doing due diligence can take a long time,” she told The Globe in 2019.
The Public Safety Minister’s powers might not apply in the cases of the remaining evacuees if security screening agencies have not reached any conclusions about their admissibility, according to Mr. Blair’s spokeswoman. “Ministerial relief is a power that is used rarely and in very limited circumstances, and is often considered an appeal of last resort for those who have been found to be inadmissible to Canada," Ms. Power said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.