Asylum after Chechnya

Canada’s reported secret program to find, evacuate and grant asylum to gay Chechens is a very good thing. This country’s values and capabilities invest it with the responsibility to attempt to help those in great need, wherever they are.

Canada is the only country in the world that has organized a sustained rescue effort, even in the face of possible backlash from the Russian government. The Liberals have ensured that at least some Chechens will escape the state-sponsored persecution of LGBT people in their homeland.

Still, the unique nature of the program raises questions beyond the virtues of this specific case. The government has so far not officially commented on the existence or future of the program, and the lack of a formal justification for its actions leaves the future of Canada’s wider refugee policies in limbo.

If this program is to become a model for actions in the future, as hinted by John Ibbitson in his piece on the subject, then greater transparency is needed to determine what circumstances constitute a crisis worthy of this extraordinary response.

Much as the Trudeau government must justify why it has created priorities at home — scarcity demands that it can only help some people and not others — it should also explain to the Canadian public why it has undertaken special refugee programs overseas. It must also explain why these actions are to be different from the current policy and what priorities they represent.

To be clear, the justification for extraordinary action in the Chechen case is, in my view, airtight. The immediacy and intensity of the Chechen crisis make it an important first case. It should also work as a starting point for feeling out the edge cases of a potentially new refugee policy.

If Chechnya is just the start, will similar programs soon be in place for refugees still in some of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world, like Syria or the Central African Republic? Or for Rohingya refugees unable to flee persecution in Myanmar?

If Canada plans to covertly retrieve refugees from their home countries, how will it determine which countries to go to, and how many refugees to evacuate?

The question is a tough one, because it requires perhaps even more difficult judgements than those made in the domestic sphere. The Canadian government has immense influence at home, but abroad, its refugee policies may determine the difference between life and death for thousands of people.

Canada is in the terrible position of comparing situations of suffering and choosing to alleviate one and not the other.

That’s why it’s so important to know what level of crisis qualifies for the type of program that Canada executed in Chechnya. With a set of standard criteria or at least clear priorities to work with, aid organizations and government agencies can more effectively prepare for action. Groups like Rainbow Railroad, that did laudable work in this case, will know for certain what it takes to spur government action in the future.

The scale of the crisis will also matter in the future. Concerning threats to LGBT people (though future programs could focus on other groups), Chechnya is not the greatest long-term source of suffering. Greater numbers of LGBT people are at high risk in a variety of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where homosexuality is a capital offence. Populations in these places could easily face imminent threats like those apparent in Chechnya. The government must be able to determine in a reliable way which desperate times call for which desperate measures.

The need for secrecy and swiftness is obvious in the case of Chechen refugees, but an articulated policy is needed moving forward. If Canada will be engaging in similar programs in the future, the government must explain to Canadians why and how it plans to act.

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