When world governments gathered in Geneva on December 9 to discuss a UN appeal for the resettlement of Syrian refugees, Canada was among those nations that decided not to offer any additional places. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), “Canada has been struggling to meet an earlier commitment from July 2013 to resettle 1,300 Syrians by the end of this year.”

Finding 1,300 Syrians in urgent need of a safe haven shouldn’t be a difficult task. There is no shortage on the supply side, with around four million people having fled Syria in the past few years. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that at least 320,000 refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Turkey are “acutely vulnerable” and in immediate need of transfer to a safe third country. In other words, it seems safe to assume that the reason that Canada is still “struggling” to implement its July 2013 promise has to do with the Canadian government itself.

Sectarian Selection

In addition, it seems that these resettlement vows came with strings attached. According to the CBC’s sources, “Canada is seeking to resettle only refugees from Syria’s religious minorities.”

Institutionalizing religious discrimination as a refugee admission criterion is not only a bad idea for moral or political reasons, but also one that is at odds with established UN practices and international norms. “States decide who is granted resettlement admission according to their policies, criteria, laws and migration regulations,” notes UNHCR, which lacks the power to compel anyone to accept its advice, but it goes on to urge all member states to make sure that resettlement programs are “needs-based” and “non-discriminatory.” If the CBC’s information is correct, the Canadian program will be neither.

The CBC report provoked immediate reactions from the Canadian opposition. In a House of Commons debate on December 12, the liberal parliamentarian Marc Garneau took the opportunity to ask Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Costas Menegakis, who had attended the Geneva meeting three days prior, whether it was true that “the religion of refugees may be a factor in their selection and that Canada will only accept religious minorities, which would exclude, for example, Sunni Muslims.”

In response, Menegakis denied that anyone would be excluded for religious reasons and called the idea that Canada would accept only one type of refugees “categorically false.” But he then added that his government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “will prioritize persecuted ethnic and religious minorities… those at demonstrated risk, and we will make no apologies for that.”

The Uneven Distribution of Death

The Canadian opposition, to its credit, has continued to protest. “The barrel bombs that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has been dropping do not discriminate whether you’re Sunni, Shia, Christian or another ethnic group,” countered the center-left National Democratic Party.

But actually, they do. Syria’s conflict cannot be reduced to simply a sectarian war, but that’s part of what it is. Fighters on all sides have committed sectarian killings and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas believed to support the other side has become so commonplace as to be unremarkable.

Yet, the war rages mostly in Sunni areas, since these are where the insurgency has found a popular base. The government is far better armed than any of its opponents and able to systematically terrorize civilian cities deep behind the frontlines by using its air force. Pro-opposition communities have accordingly borne the brunt of the destruction during the war, meaning that the vast majority of civilian victims are Sunnis, out of proportion to their majority share of the population.

Certainly, many Sunni rebel groups seek to attack civilians in pro-government areas in the same way, and some specifically target minorities using snipers, car bombs, and rockets. Thousands may have died in such attacks and tens of thousands have been forced to flee. But in terms of destructive power, no rebel group can hold a candle to Assad’s brutally effective siege tactics, artillery brigades, MIG jets, Hind helicopters, and Scud missilesweapons that have killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.

In the future, this might change. If the balance of power shifts, violence could quickly overwhelm those regime-controlled areas that have so far been spared the worst of the war, including the Alawite-populated coast, the Druze towns of Sweida or minority areas in Homs and Damascus. But until now the pattern holds and, consequently, the overwhelming majority of the approximately 3.2 million refugees registered by UNHCR are Sunni Muslims. Last year, a UN official stated that 95 percent of the Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR in Lebanon were Sunni Muslims. The proportions are likely to be similar or even more extreme in Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.

Let Needs Decide

Of course, there is no real need for these sectarian mathematics. It must be evident, even to the Canadian government, that the resettlement of refugees is a task best carried out on the basis of need and ability, not by sectarian or ethnic preference. All Syrians have lost someone in this war, all suffer from the destruction of their country, and those who need a safe place to go will need it regardless of how they pray. Syria has enough of a problem with sectarian prejudice without foreigners adding their own.

The point made by Menegakis in parliament—that certain religious or ethnic minority groups are at particular risk—is a straw man argument.

There is no doubt that the opposition-controlled parts of Syria have turned into a no-go zone for most non-Sunni minorities, or that rebel propaganda is deeply infused with sectarian vitriol against Alawites and Shia Muslims. No one can predict the outcome of the war and a town that seems reasonably safe for a non-Sunni person one day may turn into a death trap for minorities a few months later—like Raqqa, now controlled by the extremist jihadi group known as the Islamic State. Syria’s minorities have every reason to worry about their security and their future more generally.

But UNHCR’s resettlement program is about finding a safe haven for people who are already refugees, not people in Syria who may become refugees in the future. There is no reason why a destitute Syrian Christian family in Lebanon would be in greater need of resettlement than a similarly destitute Syrian Sunni family in Lebanon—and there is no reason to make their faith a shibboleth to tell them apart, when all we need to know is that they are refugees.


Slamming the Golden Door (Dec. 18, 2013)
A Time Bomb in Lebanon: The Syrian Refugee Crisis (Oct. 6, 2014)
Let Them Eat Bombs: The Cost of Ignoring Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis (Oct. 17, 2014)
Lebanon’s Dangerous Downward Spiral (Nov. 24, 2014)
The Betrayal of Syria’s Refugees (Dec. 12, 2014)