This autumn, the House of Commons will debate a motion from Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi calling on the federal government to accept 10,000 Uyghur refugees who have fled China but are at risk of being deported back, where they would face severe persecution.
That motion achieved greater urgency with the arrival of a United Nations report on Wednesday that states the Chinese government may be guilty of crimes against humanity in its treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities.
The question is whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will act to protect Uyghurs at risk. On Thursday, the government was sending mixed signals.
Mr. Zuberi put forward the motion, which calls on the federal government “to expedite the entry of 10,000 Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in need of protection, over two years starting in 2024 into Canada.”
Motions, if passed, are not binding on the government, but they do represent the will of the House.
“Not only are you dealing with extremely vulnerable people, you are also dealing with the compounding issue of genocide,” Mr. Zuberi told me. “The UN report shows how immediate and concrete action on the part of governments is urgently needed.”
The report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights does not use the word “genocide.” But its findings are damning. “Serious human rights violations have been committed” in Xinjiang, concludes outgoing commissioner Michelle Bachelet, that “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
These crimes include arbitrary detention, torture, forced medical treatment, sexual offences, forced birth control, forced labour, suppression of religious freedom and family separations.
“We’ve known about these crimes against humanity for quite a number of years,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, who is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
“Now we have detailed documentation of the crimes, and official confirmation that all of this is happening.” She urged the federal government to swiftly launch a program that would bring government-sponsored Uyghurs into Canada. “I don’t believe they need to wait until 2024.”
But when the House unanimously declared last year that “a genocide is currently being carried out by the People’s Republic of China against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims,” Mr. Trudeau and most of the cabinet stayed away from the vote. Marc Garneau, then foreign affairs minister, abstained, “on behalf of the government of Canada.”
The Trudeau government walks a fine line in its relations with Beijing. It banned the Chinese company Huawei Technologies from participating in the rollout of Canada’s 5G network, but that came long after allied countries made the same decision.
The government is planning new legislation to toughen the rules banning the import of goods produced through forced labour, but we lag behind other countries.
In that context, Thursday was typical. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly issued a strong statement of support for the UN report. “The release of this much-anticipated report was critical,” it said. “The findings reflect the credible accounts of grave human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang. This report makes an important contribution to the mounting evidence of serious, systemic human rights abuses and violations occurring in Xinjiang.”
However, a statement sent to me by Aiden Strickland, press secretary to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, was far more cautious. “The safety of Uyghur refugees is a high priority,” Ms. Strickland said. “However, we are not in a position to comment more specifically at this time as it could put this vulnerable population at risk.”
The statement made no mention of the UN report.
Few nations can match Canada’s record for swift action to rescue people at risk. More than 70,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Canada in the past six months; we brought in 25,000 Syrians displaced by civil war seven years ago; and while we have settled fewer than half of 40,000 Afghans at risk that we promised to bring in, at least the commitment is there.
Canada could easily absorb 10,000 Uyghur refugees. And we wouldn’t need to wait until 2024 to bring them here. We could do it right now, and we should.
Let’s hope the House strongly affirms Mr. Zuberi’s motion. Better yet, let’s hope the Trudeau government comes to the help of Uyghurs, even if it does offend the regime in Beijing.
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