Blogging for Equality by Nicole LaViolette 11 February 2015

Much has been made of Immigration Minister Chris Alexander‘s recent announcement that Canada will take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in response to the United Nations’ appeal to help resettle Syrian refugees worldwide. The cause is urgent: millions of Syrians who have fled the brutal civil war are languishing in countries that simply do not have the resources to care for them.

So, many Canadians have welcomed the Minister’s announcement, reassured that the federal government has not completely abandoned a commitment to humanitarianism. But many others wonder how the government will meet the increased targets, given its failure to resettle far fewer Syrian refuges in 2014.

Less has been made about the details of Minister Alexander’s announcement, however, and they deserve attention. The Minister’s office has stated that “Canada is focusing on vulnerable individuals and those facing persecution… Our priority is and will continue to be on those who are at risk because they are a religious minority, a sexual minority, or victims of rape.” Hence, the Conservative government is interested in helping only certain sub-groups of Syrian refugees.

The emphasis on sexual minorities should, at first glance, be welcomed by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities in Canada. For many years now, members of LGBT communities have supported individuals making claims for refugee protection in Canada. Groups have come together to raise funds to privately resettle these refugees. They have appeared before parliamentary committees to advocate for a fair system for sexual minority refugees. This work has been very important: the plight of LGBT refugees has long been disregarded, and as a result, sexual minorities have long been subject to discrimination, homophobia and neglect in the international and national refugee protection systems.

Yet, as a law professor who has devoted much of my scholarly work to researching the persecution of sexual minorities, I am deeply troubled by the prioritizing of LGBT refugees, along with religious minorities, ahead of many other refugees equally in need of protection. Refugee protection is supposed to be granted without discrimination. The UNHCR, the international agency responsible for referring refugees for resettlement, has stated that the selection test must be based on need, in order to help those most at risk. The agency therefore strongly discourages using discriminatory criteria such as family size, age, health status, ethnicity and religion, and presumably, sexual orientation.

Astonishingly, it seems the Conservative government intends to do what it has long denounced in relation to refugee policy: promote “queue jumping.” For years, Conservative politicians have identified this as one of the problems with our refugee system. In 2009, then Immigration Minister Jason Kenney incorrectly stated that “most Mexicans claiming refugee status in Canada are queue jumpers.” Tamil refugee claimants arriving in Canada were similarly branded by Conservative cabinet ministers. Indeed, for many years, the Harper government has justified drastic reforms to our refugee system by claiming the changes would help legitimate refugees, rather than queue-jumpers. So how can the government now justify moving specific groups of refugees to the front of a very long line of desperate people?

I know that Syrian LGBT refugees are already among the most at risk. They face criminal sanctions, social marginalization, and life-threatening violence in their home country. Therefore many will almost certainly be considered extremely vulnerable under a needs-based approach. They do not need to be singled out by Canada as part of a discriminatory resettlement policy. If the number of Syrian refugees to be resettled is increased, and the government seriously improves resettlement processing times and procedures, LGBT refugees will be able to access the protection they need.

For that reason, Canadian LGBT communities must insist that the Conservative government respect its international obligations to provide refugee protection without discrimination. Sexual minorities know only too well the harm caused by discrimination. Queer Canadians should not support doing unto others what has long been done to us.

Nicole LaViolette is a professor of law at the University of Ottawa.