Speaking Notes for the Honourable Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship: Announcement related to dedicated refugee stream to provide a safe haven for human rights defenders at risk who have fled persecution in their home country

Speech

Ottawa, Ontario

July 16, 2021

As delivered

Good morning, bonjour tout le monde. It is important to acknowledge that I am joining you from the traditional Indigenous territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Haudenosaunee. I would also like to note the presence of a number of special guests for today’s announcement, two of whom are joining us virtually from Europe.

Andrew Anderson, Front Line Defenders Executive Director and Chair of the Board of ProtectDefenders.eu Gerald Staberock. Of course we’re also fortunate to have with us Rema Jamous, UNHCR Canada representative, Kamali Powell (ph) from Rainbow Railroad and Peter Schaller (ph) from PEN Canada. We’re grateful to all of you, not only for being present today, but for your unwavering advocacy and work in the advancement of human rights through refugee resettlement.

Canada has a long and proud tradition of welcoming the world’s most vulnerable, a tradition that the government has upheld and strengthened. Since 2015, we have more than doubled our annual refugee resettlement levels. We launched and successfully carried out numerous historic initiatives, including Operation Syrian Refugee which resulted in over 70,000 being resettled in Canada.

They’re now contributing in communities across the country, including restaurant entrepreneur Rasul Alabrak (ph) who runs Damascus House in London Ontario. I recently had the honour of meeting Rasul and his family and I highly recommend the mixed skewers, by the way. The government has also introduced and expanded pathways for Yazidis and survivors of Daesh, guardian angels and many other vulnerable populations.

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, in a closed borders world, Canada still managed to welcome roughly a third of all refugees resettled around the world. On World Refugee Day just a few weeks ago, I announced three new measures to further build on this foundation. First the economic mobility pilot project which recognizes the talents and skills of refugees by welcoming through economic immigration streams.

The pilot project successfully partners with business leaders who sponsor refugees into targeted positions. Not only does this collaboration help make Canadian businesses more competitive, it also allows sponsored refugees to hit the ground running. That’s why I was pleased to unveil the next phase of the EMPT, which will help resettle 500 refugees and their families under this pilot.

Second, we said we would boost our world-renowned private sponsorship of refugees program by launching a call for proposals to improve support services provided by private sponsors and to ensure refugees take full advantage of the assistance. Third, we committed that Canada would nearly double the number of protected persons from 23,500 to 45,000 this year.

This means that more vulnerable persons can quickly become permanent residents, reunite with their families and set down roots in their communities. When the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grande, says that Canada is a bright light, you know he means it. This light shines thanks to the generosity of Canadians who played a central role in welcoming refugees into their communities.

This reflects our true nature as Canadians – open, compassionate and generous. Thanks to Canadians, our efforts are making a difference. However the work is not done. We live in an increasingly complex and uncertain world where human rights and democracy itself is under siege. When we think about resettlement we envision those who have been involuntarily displaced from their homes due to war, conflict and persecution.

At the same time we must not overlook those who bear witness to these human tragedies who are active through demonstrations and reporting so the rest of us can be informed, but in doing so they risk persecution, arrest, torture and even death. As a result, increasingly journalists and human rights defenders are compelled to leave their countries as a means of escaping the threats they face.

In 2020 the number of journalists murdered for their reporting doubled. For those defending human rights, including journalists, human rights advocates, scholars and humanitarian workers, the risk to personal safety is very real. Few need our protection more than those who put themselves at great risk in the name of democracy, accountability, freedom and human rights.

From authoritarian regimes to organized crime, the threats have never been more severe. That means those who stand up for human rights need our protection more than ever and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Today we are announcing that Canada is creating a dedicated refugee stream to provide a safe haven for human rights defenders who have fled persecution in their home country.

Today, I’m proud to announce the launch of a dedicated refugee stream to provide a safe haven for human rights defenders at risk who have fled persecution in their home country. Canada is the first country in the world to offer a dedicated pathway to permanent residence for human rights defenders. By launching this new refugee stream, we’re sending a clear message around the globe.

In the face of growing dangers, Canada stands with the defenders of human rights. Through this initiative we expect to resettle 250 government assisted refugees per year, including their family members and provide them with the support they need to make Canada their new home. This will include a particular focus on persons who are at heightened risk such as women and LGBTQ2 individuals.

We cannot do this work alone. We are going to get it done by partnering with those already doing incredible work on the ground, partners such as ProtectDefenders.eu and Frontline Defenders as well as the United Nations refugee agency and other Canadian organizations. All of them are going to help us identify those human rights defenders who are in need of resettlement.

Let me take a moment to acknowledge the multiple Canadian organizations that have been instrumental in putting this program together by providing their expert input including Amnesty International, the Canadian Council of Refugees, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, CAIROS (ph) Scholars at Risk, PEN Canada and Rainbow Railroad.

I am pleased to have representatives from two of these organizations joining us today, Peter Schaller from PEN Canada and Kamali Powell from Rainbow Railroad. Both of them and their organizations exemplify the power of dedicated Canadians in supporting persecuted human rights defenders around the world whether they are persecuted LGBTQ2 activists or fighters or those who are defending free expression.

As we all know, the current global pandemic has affected all programs, including our refugee resettlement programs. We know time is of the essence which is why we will act with urgency to get these people to Canada. We also have the option to process some cases under the urgent protection program for which national interest exemption letters may be issued to exempt these cases from existing travel restrictions where necessary.

We will work with our provincial and territorial partners, municipalities, settlement organizations and partners like the human rights organizations that I have already mentioned to determine in which communities these individuals will settle. Let me address one last but very important point. To protect these individuals from the persecution they have escaped we will not disclose where these human rights defenders will settle.

In closing, let me underline how proud I am of this initiative and all of the organizations who have supported us to get to this point. (Unintelligible) Canada’s compassion and expertise by offering human rights defenders needing protection and their families a path to permanent residence in a country that has a shining record for refugee resettlement.

I want to emphasize that in a world of closed borders we need to look ahead and consider what we can do to better protect some of the world’s most vulnerable people. This work has never been easy or simple, but it is necessary and Canadians know and share in the responsibility to carry that work forward. Thank you, merci. I will now ask Rema to say a few words followed by Andrew from Frontline Defenders and then Gerald from ProtectDefenders.eu.

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