Helping Yazidis where they’re most vulnerable: on the ground

Canada’s responsibility to protect Yazidis in Iraq should extend beyond resettlement to the creation of “safe zones” in the region, argue Kyle Matthews and Silke Melbye-Hansen.

By: /
1 November, 2016
Yazidi refugees stand behind fences as they wait for the arrival of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Special Envoy Angelina Jolie at a Syrian and Iraqi refugee camp in the southern Turkish town of Midyat in Mardin province, Turkey, June 20, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
By: Kyle Matthews
Executive director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
By: Silke Melbye-Hansen

Youth Fellow, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies 

Last week Canadian Immigration Minister John McCallum announced in parliament that the Liberal government is committed to bringing an unspecified number of Yazidi refugees to Canada over the next four months. His announcement came hot on the heels of a motion submitted by the Conservatives which called for immediate action to resettle members of the endangered Iraqi minority group. 

This positive news comes at a moment where all eyes are fixed on the military operation to take back Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from the so-called Islamic State. Canadian and international leaders alike appeared to have forgotten about the plight of the Yazidi people, a group which has been directly targeted by ISIS and has suffered the most horrific crimes of genocide, torture and sexual enslavement over the past two years.

The Liberal government’s change of heart came after months of intensive lobbying pressure from the Official Opposition. Conservative member of parliament Michelle Rempel delivered a powerful and emotional speech on October 20, calling on the Trudeau government to be more proactive. Likewise, Conservative Party interim leader Rona Ambrose has been pushing this cause onto the House of Commons’ agenda for almost a year now. Their leadership will be noted in the pages of history.

But what is truly remarkable is that it has taken so long for Canada to actually do something. We cannot say we “didn’t know” what was transpiring. This past June the United Nations made public the report “They came to destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis,” which confirmed a genocide was underway.

Other reputable organizations likewise identified ISIS’ crimes against the Yazidis as genocide. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued the public document Our generation is gone – The Islamic State’s targeting of Iraqi Minorities in Ninewa” in 2015; Human Rights Watch highlighted that ISIS has “enslaved, forcibly married, and raped Yazidi women and girls” in its World Report published in 2015; and Amnesty International released “Escape from Hell: Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State Captivity in Iraq” in December 2014.

While it is still unknown precisely how many Yazidis Canada will assist, it is certain that an extremely small percentage of the Yazidi population scattered across northern Iraq – by some estimates as high as 500,000 – will win the Canada resettlement lottery. Helping a small number of people move will benefit some, but the majority will face an unsustainable and bleak future. The question that needs to be asked is: What can Canada do to protect these Yazidis where they actually reside?

In trying to stop the carnage in the Middle East it has become apparent that Western leadership has been woefully inadequate and unimaginative. The pledge of “never again” has been abandoned and we have seen political leaders push back at the idea that specific groups of people targeted for total physical annihilation deserve to be at the front of the resettlement queue. 

The truth is that the time has come for Canada to move beyond the policy of resettlement as the preferred strategy to help those in need. As a signatory of the Genocide Convention and the country who introduced the mass atrocity prevention doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect to the United Nations in 2005, Canada can and should begin aiming to bring like-minded states together to ensure the physical security of the Yazidis in Iraq.

The chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is the only leader on the global scene who has publically called for the establishment of safe zones for the Yazidis. The establishment of such zones would require both political and military support in order to be effective. The political support needed could be pursued through collaborative focused lobbying by Germany and Canada at the United Nations. Furthermore, the International Coalition already operating in Iraq, which both Canada and Germany are part of, could commit to providing the military support needed to uphold the safe zones. The establishment of safe zones would also demand talks between the international brokers, the Yazidis and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces operating in the area. Although challenging to implement, Merkel’s proposition is certainly one that should be seriously considered. Canada is well positioned to work with Germany in trying to make safe zones an achievable goal. Only then will the Yazidis truly be safe.


Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter