Just weeks before their February deadline for resettlement, immigration officials don't know how many LGBTQ Syrians have come to Canada.
It has been nearly two months since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne welcomed the first planeload of Syrian refugees to Toronto. Back in December, Trudeau made international headlines for what has become a trademark quote: “You are home,” he told the newcomers, handing them winter coats and shaking their hands.
Predictably, the emotional photo-ops have slowed following the arrival of the first 163 Syrians. The media has instead turned their attention to feel-good stories: a family of refugees tobogganing for the first time, a heartfelt reunion between father and sons, the cordial backstories behind job offers from local business owners. Sure, there has been scrutiny—one look at the families still stuck in hotel rooms, for one, offers a juxtaposed view to the happy-go-lucky reality many publications have touted.
But scrutiny for some of the most vulnerable refugees has been noticeably absent.
In December, Torontoist published a column calling for both the government and Torontonians not to forget about LGBTQ Syrians. While the Canadian government promised to prioritize LGBTQ Syrians in their resettlement efforts, a report suggests they have, indeed, forgotten.
The government pledged to place Syrian sexual and gender minorities in cities where they can access resources specific to their needs. But, according to Daily Xtra, immigration officials are unsure how many LGBTQ Syrians have arrived in Canada since the process began.
“We treat LGBT people among the vulnerable, because they are often subject to very substantial persecution in that part of the world,” Immigration Minister John McCallum said Feb. 3, during an update on Syrian refugee resettlement efforts. The LGBTQ community, along with vulnerable women and families, were among those prioritized by the government.
So far, almost 18,000 refugees have made their way to Canada, with another 5,000 awaiting flights. Though the Feb. 29 deadline for the government to resettle 25,000 refugees is fast approaching, it’s unknown how many more LGBTQ Syrians could be headed to Canada.
As a result, private groups looking to sponsor LGBTQ refugees are unable to identify them, and therefore can’t provide them with much-needed resources. Currently, the only way to sponsor these refugees is by teaming up with registered organizations, such as Rainbow Railroad, who have already stepped up to the plate to provide relief and resources.
But the additional help of community groups could make all the difference. In Syria, homosexuality is criminalized, leaving many in the LGBTQ community no choice but to stay closeted. Queer Syrians who identify as female in particular face persecution in their home country, where they lack rights for both their sexual orientation and their gender. In 2015, terrorist group ISIS also publicly executed 10 gay men.
Navigating a city as open and welcoming as Toronto can be an especially overwhelming, if not daunting task for queer newcomers. LGBTQ-specific organizations have planned for such hardships. The LGBTQ human rights non-profit Egale, for instance, sought two LGBTQ Arabic translators to facilitate counselling for refugees. “Not only are these folks fleeing political conflict, but they’re also at the same time experiencing things like family rejection and social isolation,” Egale youth councillor Ronnie Ali told CBC last November.
Community allies can also be a source of comfort for refugees, but it’s uncertain if all LGBTQ refugees will have access to their resources at all.
It is easy enough to welcome newcomers, to shake their hands and smile while media snap photos. It, too, is easy to tell refugees that Canada is their new home. But a feeling of hospitality, of truly being at home in this country, requires meeting the needs of all communities.
The Canadian government can do better when it comes to the treatment of LGBTQ Syrian refugees. Recognizing their identities and ensuring they have access to the resources they need is a simple start.