Canada has repatriated two women and two children from a camp in northeastern Syria for suspected ISIL (ISIS) members and their families, a move that was welcomed by rights groups that have long called for Canadian citizens to be allowed to return.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government confirmed on Wednesday that the four Canadian citizens had been repatriated.
It also thanked the Syrian authorities for their cooperation and “efforts in providing care for the detained individuals under an extremely difficult security situation and adverse circumstances”, Global Affairs Canada said in a statement.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said on Wednesday that Oumaima Chouay, 27, had been arrested at the airport in Montreal upon her return from Syria on Tuesday evening and charged with “terrorism” offences.
Kimberly Polman, 50, was briefly detained when she landed on Wednesday morning and released, her lawyer told the AFP news agency and Canadian media outlets.
No information about the two children was released.
For years, rights groups and opposition politicians have urged the Canadian government to repatriate dozens of its citizens held in camps in northeastern Syria, saying they were languishing in “inhumane” conditions without being charged with a crime.
Canada is among several Western countries facing public pressure to repatriate citizens who joined or lived under ISIL, which had seized control of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.
Human Rights Watch Canada said in a June 2020 report that at least 47 Canadian citizens, including 26 children, were being held by Kurdish-led authorities in the camps.
Chouay had been the subject of an investigation since 2014 by the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, Canada’s counterterrorism squad, the RCMP said in a statement on Wednesday. She faces four criminal charges, including participating in “terrorist group” activity.
Chouay was taken prisoner in 2017 by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, and she was held at al-Roj camp in Syria, RCMP Inspector David Beaudoin said during a news conference.
Polman, who was said to be in poor health, spent three years in a detention camp after travelling to Syria in 2015 to marry an ISIL fighter, which she later publicly said she regretted.
“Repatriate, as a matter of urgent priority, all Canadian citizens detained in northeast Syria, giving priority to children, persons requiring urgent medical assistance, and other particularly vulnerable detainees,” Human Rights Watch Canada tweeted on Tuesday evening as news of the women’s release broke.
Repatriate, as a matter of urgent priority, all Canadian citizens detained in northeast Syria, giving priority to children, persons requiring urgent medical assistance, and other particularly vulnerable detainees. https://t.co/UNgtKpUU0q https://t.co/JCEhHnYoM7
— Human Rights Watch Canada (@HRWcanada) October 25, 2022
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, New Democratic Party MP Heather McPherson welcomed the repatriation of the four Canadians, but said dozens more are still being held.
“It is far too late. There are still dozens of Canadians, including Canadian children, who are living in appalling conditions in northern Syria,” McPherson said.
“The government of Canada has said that it is impossible to repatriate these Canadians. And I think what we see today … is that it is very possible, that Canada has always had the ability,” she said.
In 2020, Canada repatriated a five-year-old orphaned girl from Syria after her uncle took legal action against the government. Another child also was repatriated in 2021 as was her mother several months later.
United Nations human rights officials welcomed that first repatriation case, saying it was “absolutely urgent that women and children” be allowed to return to their home countries.
“We have found the conditions for women and children in these Syrian detention camps reaches the threshold standard for torture, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law,” they said in October 2020.
Canada had previously said its lack of a diplomatic presence in Syria complicated efforts to repatriate citizens held in the camps. It also has argued that these repatriations could pose a security risk to the country.
In its statement on Wednesday, Global Affairs Canada said the safety of all Canadians, both at home and abroad, remained a top priority.
“Canada conducted the operation on that basis and ensured the health and wellbeing of the 4 Canadians,” it said, thanking the United States for its assistance in the operation.
“Canada cannot provide information about the individuals due to privacy considerations and cannot share details of the repatriation for operational security reasons.”
Afghan refugees: Government delays increasing financial pressure – CTV News
Refugee advocates are raising concerns that Afghan refugees granted asylum in Canada are being burdened by escalating costs stemming from the government’s delay in processing their claims.
Before they board their flight to Canada, all refugees are required to sign a loan agreement to pay back the cost of their transportation and pre-arrival expenses which can include hotel stays.
Some Afghans identified by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as eligible for resettlement have been waiting months for exit permits while living in hotels arranged by the government. The hotel bills can add thousands of dollars to their debt.
The Canadian Council for Refugees says Afghans are being forced to pay for an inefficient bureaucracy.
“It seems like the Canadian government is taking advantage of the vulnerability of people,” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees. Hotel bills can add thousands of dollars to their government debt.
Dench says refugees have no choice but to accept a “legally dubious” contract that doesn’t stipulate a precise loan amount.
“If they want a permanent home they have to sign on to whatever the terms of the agreement are. There’s no negotiation room, so people are forced into this situation.”
LONG WAITS AND BIG BILLS
Because Canada doesn’t recognize the Taliban government Afghans must get to a third country with consular support to complete their refugee applications. Many flee to neighboring Pakistan where Canada has a High Commission in the capital of Islamabad.
Nearly all Afghan refugees deemed eligible for resettlement are placed in the care of the International Organization for Migration while they are overseas.
The IOM organizes both charter and commercial flights to Canada and coordinates hotel stays for refugees as they wait for their exit permits. IOM doesn’t book flights until after IRCC has completed security and medical checks of its applicants. The organization bills the Canadian government approximately $150 per day to house and provide three meals a day for one family.
Of the 25,400 Afghans who have arrived in Canada since August 2021, IOM spokesperson Paul Dillon told CTV News in an emailed statement Friday the organizations has arranged travel for more than 22,000 of those refugees.
The claims of another 15,000 Afghans Canada committed to accepting after the Taliban took over the country have been delayed.
Irfanullah Noori, 28 and his family of five stepped off a plane at Pearson International Airport less than two months ago at the end of October. Before the Taliban took over his homeland in Noori worked as a logistics coordinator at the Kabul International Airport. He qualified for asylum because his brother served as an interpreter for Canadian soldiers.
Before being issued travel documents to Canada, Nouri, his wife and their three children, all under the age of five – stayed in an Islamabad hotel arranged by IOM for three months.
Irfanullah Noori poses with his youngest daughter on October 25, 2022 at the Pakistan International Airport before he boarded plane bound for Canada.
Before boarding his flight he signed a loan agreement. Nouri says IOM staff told him he would need to repay hotel expenses that added up to more than $13,000. That amount does not factor in the cost of flights for his family that he will also have to repay.
IRCC says 96 per cent of refugees are able to pay back the loans. Monthly payments on the interest free loans are scheduled to begin one year after refugees arrive in Canada and costs can be spread out over nine years.
The federal government puts a cap of $15,000 on each loan per family, but the Canadian Council for Refugees says this is a misleading number.
Refugee families who have older dependents may have to pay back more than the cap. That’s because dependents over the age of 22 years old, can be considered a separate family unit and required to take on a new loan. Dench says this policy puts refugees in a precarious economic position. She’s seen families fight over finances and hopes and dreams put on hold.
“You have young people who should normally be going to university and pursuing their education but they feel that they’re morally obliged to get down to work, even at a minimum wage job in order to pay off the family debt,” said Dench. She argues the Canadian government should stop requiring refugees to repay the costs of getting them to safety, no matter where they come from.
SIMILAR CLAIMS, DIFFERENT TIME FRAMES
Since the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Veterans Transition Network has helped raise funds to get interpreters and others out of Afghanistan. Oliver Thorne, VTN’s executive director says he’s frustrated that there are huge variations how long it takes for claims to be approved between applicants with similar profiles
“Some migrants are left in the dark. They don’t know why it’s taking them an additional two, four or six months compared to another interpreter who worked with the Canadian armed forces.” Thorne says IRCC needs to hire and train more staff to speed up the processing of claims.
He’s also calling for the removal of loan requirements, especially for Afghans who assisted the Canadian armed forces.
“They protected our men and women in uniform at great risk to themselves and their families. And secondly, these are going to be Canadians. They’re going to live here in our society down the street from us, and we have nothing to gain by making their transition more difficult,” Thorne said in an interview from Vancouver.
NO DEBT RELIEF
CTV News asked the Immigration Minister if it was fair that the Canadian government was burdening Afghans with additional costs due to the government backlog.
On Friday, Sean Fraser blamed a complicated process, but acknowledged that some refugees had been stuck “for a significant period of time.’ But the minister offered few solutions other than a vague reassurance that his department was “working with Pakistani officials to make sure we’re facilitating the smooth transportation of people to Canada.”
Meanwhile Noori is struggling to make ends meet in his new Ontario home, despite finding a job a few weeks ago at the General Motors plant in Oshawa.
Hired as a data-entry clerk, Noori earns $19/hour and is trying to pick up extra shifts on the weekend so he can make his $2,000 monthly rent on a one bedroom apartment.
Even though he won’t have to start paying back his refugee loan until next year, he’s daunted by the impending bill.
“It’s expensive (here.) I work 8 hours a day and six days a week. It will be very hard for me to pay back.”
After surviving the Taliban, Noori now faces subsistence in Canada.
Children’s hospital in Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries
A children’s hospital in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries and appointments starting Monday.
Health officials say it’s due to a high level of respiratory illness.
It is unclear how many surgeries and appointments at Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St. John‘s will be affected.
Residents who are not experiencing a medical emergency are being asked to avoid visiting an emergency department.
Slain RCMP Const. Yang cleared of wrongdoing in shooting: B.C. police watchdog
The Independent Investigations Office says after a review of all available evidence its chief civilian director determined that there are no reasonable grounds to believe Const. Shaelyn Yang committed an offence.
It says the matter will not be referred to the Crown for consideration of charges.
Yang, a 31-year-old mental health and homeless outreach officer, was stabbed to death on Oct. 18 while she and a City of Burnaby employee attempted to issue an eviction notice to a man who had been living in a tent at a local park.
Yang shot the suspect before she died, and the IIO later said Jongwon Ham underwent surgery for his injuries.
Ham has since been charged with first-degree murder in Yang’s death.
“Due to concurrent court proceedings related to the incident, the IIO’s public report will not be released on the IIO website until that process has concluded,” the IIO said in a news release.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2022.
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