Honourable members of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, good morning to you all.
I would like to thank you for the kind invitation. I'm honoured to be here today to speak on behalf of the Catholic Refugee Sponsors Council, CRSC.
CRSC provides a national voice to respond to the needs of the world's refugees for resettlement. There are about 100 sponsorship agreement holders or SAHs across Canada, and about 30 of them are Catholic agencies. In 2015, combined, the Catholic SAHs privately sponsored more than 7,500 refugees; about 50% were Syrian nationals. Iraqi nationals were the second-largest group, in addition to Somalian and Afghan refugees. Brochures about the organization are available in French and English.
In the time I have today, I'd like to talk about two things. First I will talk about the persecution of the most vulnerable refugees: religious and other groups. Second, I will talk about the protection of the indigenous peoples of Iraq.
In any refugee crisis, we need to distinguish between protection needs and resettlement needs. The first goal for the international community is protection of all refugees locally until a durable solution is available. A durable solution would be voluntary repatriation after the end of the war or crisis, or local integration in the host country, or resettlement in destination countries. The option for resettlement in destination countries is usually preserved for the most vulnerable, who cannot be repatriated to their homeland or locally integrated in the host country simply because they cannot go back to their normal lives.
In the case of Iraq and Syria, the vulnerable groups are ethnic and religious minorities, political activists, women at risk, LGBT communities, atheists, converted and secular Muslims.
Historically, the problem of the most vulnerable groups in the Middle East is compounded whenever the government of the day is too weak to implement the law or condones going after certain groups. In the 1940s, for example, the Iraqi government condoned attacks on the Jewish community, and many were forced to flee after their properties were confiscated. According to an Ottoman census in 1917, the Jewish community in Baghdad was about 20% of the total population. Today, there are only five.
Historically, going after religious and ethnic groups was common. It happened to the Jewish community before happening to other religious groups today. The Iraqi Jewish community were mostly resettled in Israel and other countries and managed to remain vocal and strong. That is why resettlement of minority, ethnic, and religious groups needs to be prioritized, to ensure that they live on.
From 2003 on in Iraq, the government was too weak to preserve law and order, and this allowed militias and extremist groups to go after ethnic and religious minorities, as well as other vulnerable groups mentioned earlier, without fear of punishment. The same occurred in Syria after the civil war of 2011. The rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, made matters worse, and ISIL went on a religious cleansing war against all minorities and other vulnerable groups. Christians were forced out of their ancient homeland with the help of their historical neighbours. Yazidis and LGBT community members were killed and their women enslaved. Those groups will find it extremely difficult to be repatriated to their homeland, because their lives will never be the same. They know they will be targeted as soon as the government is weak.
As far as indigenous people are concerned, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 by a majority, 144 states. Four voted against, and there were 11 abstentions. Canada officially adopted and promised to implement the declaration in 2016. In January 2016, Minister Carolyn Bennett announced:
...we are now a full supporter of the declaration, without qualification. We intend nothing less than to adopt and implement the declaration in accordance with the Canadian Constitution.
This support does not apply to the indigenous people of Canada only; Canada now is committed to indigenous peoples worldwide.
The declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous people as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education, and other issues. The goal of the declaration is to encourage countries to work alongside indigenous people to solve global issues like development, multicultural democracy, and decentralization.
The indigenous people of Iraq are being targeted by ISIL and other extremist groups not only because of their religion but because of their culture and ethnicity. Canada and other countries should prioritize their protection by resettling them in safe countries, because there is no foreseen solution in the immediate or long term.
The Aramaic-speaking Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs, Mandeans, and Yazidi are the indigenous people of Iraq. They are the descendants of those who ruled ancient Akkad, Assyria, and Babylonia. More generally speaking, they are descendants of ancient Mesopotamians. They speak dialects of the Aramaic of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires and have their own written script.
They began to convert to Christianity in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, formerly having followed the ancient Sumerian-Akkadian religion known as Ashurism. The same groups were targeted by Turkey during the Armenian genocide of 1915, which was recognized by the Canadian Parliament in 2004.
The Canadian government, as well as other governments, needs to give special attention to ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, in particular Syrians, Assyrians, Mandeans, and Yazidis, because they are the indigenous people of the land. Without this protection and resettlement, those communities will disappear forever.