Conservative cabinet member Jason Kenney (right) told Mahir Aboudi and his family that his aging mother and father could not join his family in Canada as refugees because hey haven’t yet crossed an international border. Photo by Michael Swan.

Internally displaced Iraqi Christians not refugees

  • September 10, 2014

TORONTO - Mahir Aboudi’s aging mother and father — on the run from the Islamic State and holed up with thousands of refugees in Irbil, Kurdistan — can’t join their son and his family in Canada as refugees because they haven’t yet crossed an international border, Conservative cabinet member Jason Kenney told Aboudi and his family. 

Under international law, the definition of a refugee is someone who has left their country of origin. Canada cannot extend refugee protection to internally displaced Christians in Iraq, Kenney said. 

He was approached by Aboudi at the end of an ecumenical and interfaith prayer service where Toronto Catholics joined with a wide range of Christian and other faith leaders to pray for victims of the rampaging jihad warriors in Syria and Iraq. 

The United Nations reports there are 1.5 million internally displaced Iraqis. Thousands of Christians, including the entire Christian population from the city of Mosul, have fled into the autonomous region of Kurdistan — a part of Iraq seeking to break away and form its own state. Kurdistan’s own armed forces, the Peshmurga, have held back Islamic State forces. 

Refugee sponsors in Canada, including the Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto, are lobbying to have Iraq declared a refugee source country for Christians and other minorities fleeing the Islamic State. 

But the Minister of Multiculturalism, Employment and Development told The Catholic Register there are no plans to have the cabinet declare internally displaced Iraqis eligible for refugee protection in Canada. 

With some 4,000 Iraqi refugees still in process, with sponsors waiting in Canada, it would be unfair to designate Christians, Yazidis and others fleeing the Islamic State into Kurdistan as refugees, possibly extending wait times for existing refugees, Kenney said. 

“Refugees are people who have fled their country. That’s the international convention,” Kenney said. 

Given the necessity of thorough security and background checks, and the logistical difficulty of communicating with Iraqi refugees in the war zone of Syria, long wait times are a fact of life, said Kenney. 

The government wants to concentrate on reversing the Islamic State’s growing presence in a large area of both Iraq and Syria. 

“It’s still an emergency situation,” Kenney said. “The hope is that these demons can be turned out.” 

Canada is sending 100 members of the Special Operations Regiment to assist the Iraqi army in a non-combat role. 

Canada can’t let the Iraqi emergency drive its entire refugee policy, according to Kenney. 

“We have long-term obligations,” he said. “There are 12 million long-term refugees in the world... There are practical limits to what we can do.” 

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