Martin Mark, executive director of Archdiocese of Toronto's refugee office, told the House of Commons Citizenship and Immigration Committee that Canada needs to help the Yazidi refugees Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Canada needs to step up help for Yazidis, vulnerable minorities

  • July 20, 2016

OTTAWA – The head of the Toronto archdiocese’s refugee office made an impassioned plea July 18 for Canada to to protect Yazidis and other vulnerable religious minorities.

Speaking to the House of Commons Citizenship and Immigration Committee, which is conducting hearings on measures to protect vulnerable groups, Martin Mark, executive director of ORAT (Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto) stressed the importance of helping Yazidis who face “unbelievable abuse and extreme torture” from the Islamic State in the Middle East.

“Yazidis are among the most abandoned groups in history,” Mark told the committee.

Yazidis are persecuted for their religious beliefs and have “no political or religious lobby” to help them, he said. If Canada is “serious about supporting the most vulnerable groups, there is no more vulnerable group than the Yazidis.”

Toronto has welcomed its first Yazidi refugee family, and is prepared to welcome more, he said.

He also urged Canada to change its policy against accepting unaccompanied minors.

“We should not just abandon children in the (refugee) camps,” he said.

Mark urged the government to lift the cap on private refugee sponsorships it imposed this year. The archdiocese, which is one of the largest refugee sponsorship agreement holders in Canada, can only accept 1,000 privately sponsored refugees this year. Mark told CCN he was not sure why the government imposed the cap on private sponsorships, but he suspects it has something to do with ensuring there is not a backlog of cases.

Mark said the 1,000 private sponsorships must include not only refugees from Syria and Iraq, but also those the archdiocese helps from Africa and other parts of the world.

“This is not good for the voluntary sector,” he said.

The archdiocese settled more than 3,000 refugees last year. To speed up private sponsorships, which takes time, Mark said a combination of government funds and private sponsorship is the fastest way to help.

He also urged Canada to restore the “source country” clause that would allow bringing in internally displaced persons even though they do not qualify under the UNHCR’s definition of a refugee, since they have not fled their country of origin.

There are 21 million official refugees, he said, but 41 million are internally displaced peoples, who represent “the majority of uprooted people.”

“We are excluding 41 million people in need,” he said.

Mark said he travelled to Lebanon and Jordan a couple of months ago and Yazidis are not found in the refugee camps in Jordan. Instead, most have fled from their homes in Iraq to the northern region dominated by the Kurds. “People inside the country cannot be established as refugees,” he said.

Working with local partners on the ground in Iraq, the archdiocese’s refugee office can go directly to the region to select vulnerable families for sponsorship, he said, noting he was planning a trip soon to the northern Iraq. Through its work with local partners, the refugee office has been able to “identify, select and screen” vulnerable families. After an exploratory trip, Mark and his team will return to the area in six to eight weeks to pave the way to select 400 families.

While Canada gets great praise for its work in helping refugees, “something went wrong and we have to correct it before it’s too late,” Mark said.

Mark also urged the Canadian government to pay greater attention to religious persecution. While in previous years, most persecution had to do with ethnicity in nationalistic conflicts, now there is a “worldwide dominance of religious conflict,” he said. He used Somalia as an example. Where people were formerly targeted for ethnicity, they are now targets of “religious extremists.”

When someone from Iraq or Syria is persecuted for being Chaldean or Syriac not mentioning the fact of religious persecution is wrong, he said. In the Middle East, most refugees and internally displaced people are facing religious persecution. “Victims should be identified for religious persecution,” he said.

Mark told the committee most of the refugees settled recently by the Toronto archdiocese were persecuted Christians or other religious minorities, including Ahmadi Muslims, who also face religious persecution.

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