An audit of Syrian refugee files ordered by the Prime Minister's Office in the spring was not limited to potential security concerns, but examined all aspects of the process – including whether Christians and other vulnerable groups were getting priority status.
The Syrian refugee crisis threatened to hijack the federal election campaign again on Thursday, after the Globe and Mail reported that Citizenship and Immigration Canada stopped processing Syrian refugee applications that it had received from the United Nations.
The report said the Prime Minister's Office ordered the halt, which lasted several weeks, and that the department handed over some refugee files for vetting by political staff. The report said Syrian refugees referred to Canada by the UN would need to be approved by the prime minister before being allowed into the country.
At a campaign rally in Vancouver, Stephen Harper angrily denied political staff interfered in any specific files. "Political staff are never involved in approving refugee applications," he said. "Such decisions are made by officials in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration."
But Harper did confirm his government ordered an audit of Syrian refugees who had been referred by the UN and accepted by Canada over the previous year. He said the goal of the audit was to ensure "the selection of the most vulnerable people (while) keeping our country safe and secure."
The review, which was launched in June and involved examining hundreds of files, looked at all aspects of the Syrian refugee process. That included whether adequate security screening was in place, as well as whether certain groups were benefiting from Canada's response. It's unclear when the review ended and processing resumed.
The Conservative government committed in January to resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017. That was in addition to 1,300 accepted over the previous two years. However, the commitment met with criticism after the government said it wanted to prioritize ethnic and religious minorities.
The Conservatives argued ethnic and religious minorities are among the most vulnerable in humanitarian crises, such as Syria. But some accused the government of an anti-Muslim bias and pandering to certain ethnic communities in Canada.
The UN High Commission for Refugees says its policy is to help the most vulnerable, no matter their religion or ethnic background.
"Belonging to a minority doesn't make you necessarily vulnerable," UNHCR representative to Canada Furio de Angelis told the Vancouver Sun last week. "The Yazidi or Kurdish or Christian (minority) … who have fled together, they live in a camp. They live the life of a refugee. But you don't have a specific vulnerability there."
Figures obtained by the Citizen show between January and August, about 350 Syrian refugees referred by the UN were admitted into Canada. Of those, only about 20 – or six per cent – fell into the category of vulnerable religious or ethnic minorities.
In contrast, nearly 90 per cent of the 600 privately sponsored Syrians – those brought in by groups other than the government – fit that description. This review did not deal with these refugees, however.
The government has suggested its review was sparked by concerns about reports that terrorist groups were trying to slip sleeper agents into Western countries. De Angelis confirmed security screening is often done by whichever country is accepting the refugee, not by the UNHCR.
"Security is the most complicated," he said. "When it comes to security, we have little to say because countries use their own database and that's the security component, which is taken care of at that moment."
But Canadian Council for Refugees executive director Janet Dench wondered if the small number of ethnic and religious minorities accepted into Canada through the UN stream played a role. "The concern is more about them looking in and saying, 'There's too many Muslims here,'" she suggested. "The role of the PMO is just not clear."
The Conservatives say they are not trying to exclude certain groups, and that ethnic and religious minorities are among the most vulnerable.
Sunni Muslims account for nearly three-quarters of all Syrians, according to the CIA Factbook, while other Muslim groups such as Shias, Alawis and Ismailis represent another 16 per cent of the population. Christians and a small number of Jews represent the remaining 10 per cent.
During separate events Thursday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau dismissed suggestions the government might have been looking at legitimate security concerns. Instead, they accused Harper of political meddling and fearmongering over the Syrian refugee crisis.
At a campaign stop in Toronto, Mulcair accused Harper of using "fake security arguments as an excuse for fulfilling his own agenda, which is to stop refugees who are in the greatest need in history since the Second World War."
Speaking in Vaughan, Ont., Trudeau said: "There are very few people left in this country who are surprised when we hear reports of the prime minister and his office meddling in things in a political and a non-transparent way."
With files from Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun