Canada is prioritizing some refugees based on characteristics that include their religion, the age of their children and whether they have a business background, using increasingly specific criteria over the past year.

These criteria are used in a complex triage that attempts to put some groups at the front of the refugee assessment line, The Globe and Mail has learned.

The criteria, known as areas of focus, have favoured specific groups of United Nations-referred refugees including religious minorities and people such as gays and lesbians who face discrimination because of their sexuality.

They also favour categories that include people who have run a business; families whose children are all under 10 years of age; those who speak English or French fluently; those residing outside refugee camps; and women between the ages of 20 and 40 who are victims of violence. Most of these categories also require refugees to have family in Canada, among other criteria.

While the Conservatives have said they are targeting ethnic and religious minorities for resettlement, the details of that policy have been hard to discern. Some areas of focus seem to value qualities considered desirable for economic and cultural integration – language fluency, for example, or a young age at the time of migration. They also raise questions about whether Canada should take on those most in need or those most likely to succeed on arrival – and whether it can do both.

At a time when a growing number of Canadians has been pushing the government to do more on the Syrian refugee file and do it faster, the areas of focus are another layer of administration to be navigated.

Under these criteria a Sunni Muslim single mother with an 11-year-old child who didn’t meet an area of focus could be held back in the pile or bounced through another process, while someone who owned a business and speaks English fluently could be rushed through.

Cases referred by the United Nations refugee agency that don’t meet the areas of focus must still be processed, but they could be delayed for an unknown period of time. For the refugees living in desperate circumstances, in some cases faced with hunger, privation or exploitation, any delay in finding a durable solution could mean additional hardship. In the first eight months of 2015, during which time the Prime Minister’s Office ordered a halt to UN-referred refugee processing for an unknown period, Canada issued visas to 308 Syrian refugees referred by the UN.

Speaking on background, a government official said that since not all refugees can be resettled, the government has chosen to focus on ethnic and religious minorities who face serious threats of genocide. He disagreed with the notion the areas of focus are discriminatory, and added that people with official language fluency and children from conflict zones who are younger than 10 are better able to adapt to life in Canada. The areas of focus prioritize the most vulnerable, those threatened by persecution and those best able to successfully settle, the official said.

The new criteria apply to government-assisted refugees who are referred for resettlement to Canada by the UN refugee agency. In the past, Canada has accepted the refugees screened and referred by the agency once they pass Canadian vetting and health and security checks. Now, Canada has hired the Danish Refugee Council, a foreign NGO, to do some additional work on Syrian refugee files, but the nature of that work has not been made clear. The government has declined to answer questions on the subject.

Furio De Angelis, the UN refugee agency’s representative in Ottawa, said the agency refers resettlement cases to Canada solely on the basis of vulnerability. What happens after that is up to the Canadian government. He would not say whether Canada asked the agency to take into account the areas of focus when making refugee referrals.

“Of course there are discussions between government and UNHCR at all levels … and a lot of things are said in these discussions, but I think we should just stick to what was in the final announcement. The final result of our agreement was that there would be a processing of 10,000 Syrian refugees and UNHCR will submit the cases on the basis of international vulnerability criteria,” Mr. De Angelis said, referring to Canada’s January commitment to take 10,000 Syrian refugees.

Susan Fratzke, a U.S.-based policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said she hasn’t seen the large resettlement countries, such as Canada and the United States, put such emphasis on integration through the development of refugee criteria. It’s something that smaller European countries, such as Denmark, have done more recently, she said.

“Integration is obviously a major concern for all countries in terms of immigration more broadly so it doesn’t surprise me that it is something Canada would want to improve,” Ms. Fratzke said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Oct. 09, 2015 1:28AM EDT
Last updated Friday, Oct. 09, 2015 7:27AM EDT