Canada in Lebanon: 'Canadian values in action'

Michelle Cameron, Canada's ambassador to Lebanon, tells Michael Friscolanti about refugees' deteriorating conditions and our efforts to help the most vulnerable

Canadian Ambassador to Lebanon Michelle Cameron, in the Canadian Embassy in Dbayeh, near Beirut, Lebanon, on Dec 2, 2015. (Photograph by Sam Tarling)

Canadian Ambassador to Lebanon Michelle Cameron, in the Canadian Embassy in Dbayeh, near Beirut, Lebanon, on Dec 2, 2015. (Photograph by Sam Tarling)

The wave of 25,000 Syrian refugees about to arrive in Canada will come from three countries: Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. But nowhere is the humanitarian crisis more glaring than in Lebanon, an already fractured country of 4.5 million that has seen its population balloon by more than 1.1 million since Syria’s civil war began in 2011. In an interview at the Canadian Embassy in Beirut, ambassador Michelle Cameron speaks to Maclean’s Michael Friscolanti about the heartbreaking families she has met, how refugees are selected for resettlement in Canada, and why people back home should not be afraid.

Q: The Syrian refugee crisis is very much at the top of minds in Canada, but most Canadians are not in Lebanon. They aren’t seeing the crisis first-hand. If someone from Canada asks you what it’s like to be here, to see it, how would you describe it to them?

A: I said this to my parents the other day on the phone: It truly is Canadian values in action, if you can just imagine it. We have to remember that this crisis has been going on for over four years, so the refugees’ ability to cope, and their ability just to provide food for themselves, has really been declining. When you go out to these informal settlements you’ll see people living in deplorable conditions. They live in boxes that are made of plywood, smaller than probably your living room. They have been winterized with plastic sheeting to keep the rain and the snow out. They don’t have consistent access to drinking water, in most cases. They don’t have a permanent sewage system. So as you’re watching these families cope, you’re seeing their sense of self deteriorate. Can you imagine having three or four children, and having one of them look up at you and say: “I’m hungry.” You just can’t imagine. So to go from seeing Syrian refugees in these conditions, and then to see our efforts, it’s heartwarming.

Q: Is there a family you met along the way that really sticks in your mind?

A: I would have to say probably the first family, because I think that’s where you get the most shock. There have been quite a few along the way, but the first family, it was up north, beginning of February, the rainy season was in full swing. We are up to our ankles in mud, we traipse up a hill with a little river of mud along the side, kids are running around being kids, as they would anywhere. They are playing with rocks and a stick, covered in mud, but so happy and so smiley and so welcoming. We get invited to a lady’s house, and of course in this part of the world—or any part of the world—when a guest comes you want to offer them tea or coffee. She didn’t have anything. She was embarrassed. I saw the heartbreak in this mother’s eyes when she is saying: “I can’t feed my children.” The UN had come in and made sure her family had access to safe drinking water in this informal settlement, and she was so happy to show us the water in her house. I said: “Can you tell me what this means for you?” She said: ‘It means that I don’t have to walk out in the dark to try to find a glass of water for my children when they are thirsty in the middle of the night.’

Q: How many Canadians can understand that?

A: You can’t. I was there for maybe an hour, and you’re still digesting and still processing.

Q: For the families who will be selected among the 25,000 coming to Canada, it will completely change their lives. But at the same time, is it difficult to know that there are more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and as large as Canada’s resettlement program is, there are still so many who won’t receive that opportunity?

A: If we look at the broader Syrian crisis, we now have over half the Syrian population out of their homes—over 11 million people. Some are internally displaced, another four-plus million are registered as being out of Syria, and there are many more who are not registered. That’s when you realize: we need a worldwide response. I’m so proud to walk around town here and say I’m the Canadian ambassador because ambassadors for other countries are coming to me and saying: “Keep us updated. Are you moving people this quickly? How are you doing it safely? How are you doing it to protect the public health in Canada? How are you choosing refugees?” I feel like Canada is really a leader in coming out front and centre and saying: “Look, we can take this many quickly, safely, securely, and we can do it logistically.” I feel like that’s the other gift that we’re giving: helping other countries to say, “Well, if Canada can do it…” So I think we need to look at this initiative as the exciting initiative it is—this wonderful humanitarian response from a country that has a history of being humanitarian—but also look at the impact it’s having on the world and what that is going to mean for the broader resettlement efforts.

Q: Do you have a breakdown yet of how many of these 25,000 Syrian refugees will come from Lebanon, how many will come from Turkey, and how many will come from Jordan?

A: In Lebanon, we’ve been processing refugees for a while, both privately sponsored and the government-assisted refugees. So right now, while the numbers are still in flux, we’re making sure we’ve built in enough flexibility so that as each of the centres are fully scaled to capacity, we’re not tied to a specific number. I never want my team to say: “We have to get this many at all costs.” It’s not about us hitting numbers. It’s about the humanitarian response, and I think we really need to be focused on that. If, for some reason, there was a logistical issue in one of the three countries, the other two can ramp up their operations. So we’re flexible.

Q: So the government hasn’t approached UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) in Lebanon and said: We want you recommend X amount of cases for us?

A: They might have for planning purposes. But the great thing about UNHCR is this isn’t their first rodeo. They’ve been doing this around the world for years, so they have inventory, not just for us but for other countries who are doing resettlement.

Syrian refugee children stand on November 15, 2015, at a makeshift camp by Taybeh village, in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, where Doctors Without Borders (MSF) are offering family planning sessions. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian refugee children stand on November 15, 2015, at a makeshift camp by Taybeh village, in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, where Doctors Without Borders (MSF) are offering family planning sessions. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Q: Can you help Canadians understand who gets recommended for resettlement by UNHCR? What is the specific criteria?

A: UNHCR has been involved in humanitarian assistance since their inception in the 1950s, so we have to remember that this is their core business: registering refugees, assisting refugees and helping countries like Canada who are looking to resettle refugees. They assess vulnerabilities for each family. They have a variety of databases and a variety of indices, and that is supplemented with interviews with the families and verified by home visits. First, they’ll take a look at where refugees live: Do they have access to services? Are they in a safe area? The next layer is what they call the community layer: In the community where they live, are they able to access health care services? Are they able to access the basic services that, say, you and I as Canadians take for granted? Then they have another layer of analysis where they look at individuals and individual families: For instance, what is the income for the size of the family? Where do they get their clean drinking water, if they’re lucky enough to have clean drinking water? Are they able to meet their basic food needs? From that, they have a picture of who the most vulnerable are and where they are located.

Q: Are they specifically looking for people who suffer from health issues, or who may have been victims of violence or torture? Is that part of the criteria?

A: It is. That comes down to the individual and family vulnerability. They also look at: Are they being persecuted in the area where they’re living that can’t be mitigated by moving them to another area, such as LGBT community members.

Q: Once UNHCR recommends someone for resettlement, how does the process work on Canada’s side? What do our visa officers do?

A: The UNHCR refers cases to us. They are not the decision maker; they are our first triage, to help us target the cases that are the most vulnerable and that meet our criteria. That allows Canadian visa officers to do what they do best, which is analyze the files and make decisions. We do a paper review and confirm that they meet our vulnerability criteria. If they do, the families or individuals are invited for an interview, and we have very skilled officers who have been doing this for years. This isn’t a brand new program. They will interview the refugees looking for a variety of things, including security flags. If we’re confident in what we’ve found in the interview, their file will move on and the families or individuals will go through a health screening to make sure we’re not exposing Canadians to a contagious disease. They will also go through a security screening where we rely on our law enforcement and intelligence partners in Canada. Biometric data is being compiled as well, because we really want to make sure that the individual who started through the UNHCR process is the one who arrives in Canada. We’re very conscious of that.

Q: How many officials, just in Lebanon, are working on this operation now?

A: At last count, we’re at 120 to 130 people.

Q: Do you know how many interviews are being done per day here?

A: We’re scaling up to make sure we can meet our commitment. We’re expecting several hundred [interviews per day], but the exact number is going to wax and wane.

Q: Are you interviewing for both privately sponsored and UNHCR-referred right now?

A: Yes.

Q: Just so I’m clear, there is no quota of cases that you’re hoping to reach in Lebanon?

A: No. We really are about making sure the numbers are flexible enough that as we’re sorting out every logistical step, we’re able to collectively meet this goal. Even though it’s in three locations (Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey), we are really working as one team to make sure that the numbers are met.

Q: Are Syrian refugees already departing Beirut for Canada every day?

A: Yes. Remember, Beirut has been processing refugee files for years, so we have people leaving every day on commercial planes.

Q: There is a segment of Canadians who are concerned, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, that some of these Syrian refugees coming to Canada could pose a danger. What would you say to those Canadians?

A: First of all, I’m glad that we live in a country where we can ask those questions. That’s not every country in the world. I think Canadians, legitimately after the Paris attacks, they had questions, and I thank you for being here so I can help—hopefully—alleviate some of those concerns. If I was in Canada, I would have absolutely no problem living in a community accepting Syrian refugees. When I take a look at the security screening that we do—and I can’t go into all the details because then it affects the integrity of the process—we are using our law-enforcement and intelligence partners. We have been involved in the immigration business for years, so we have a tried and true process. We’re not accepting people blind. The other thing we have to take a look at is: Look who we are targeting. We are targeting the vulnerable population. If I can just give you the typical, average story: They have come from parts of Syria where they have been internally displaced two or three times starting in 2011. They have now been Lebanon anywhere from two to three years, on average. They are living in gradually degrading conditions. Fifty per cent live below the minimal survival basket that we calculate. Seventy per cent are below the poverty line. Sixty per cent are children. Twenty-two per cent are women. When we add all this up, this isn’t the Daesh or the ISIS demographic to start with. Daesh, ISIS, ISIL—whatever you want to call them—they have other means.

Q: What has this project meant to your staff on the front line? Is there an increased sense of pride around the embassy?

A: It’s exciting to be part of history. And I hate to say it again, but it’s Canadian values in action. It really is. Unless you’re First Nations, you can trace your family’s history back as either refugees or migrants, so to be part of being able to give that to someone is just heartwarming. You can feel the energy through the embassy and our operations.

Q: Do you have a sense of when things are going to reach the point where you will need to use chartered planes, and how that is going to work?

A: We’re hoping within the next two weeks. Right now, we’re moving people through commercial means because that is the most economical. We still have seats on the planes, but one can imagine that as we get closer to Christmas that is going to be more and more difficult, especially because Lebanon does celebrate Christmas. Once the tipping point comes that it’s not economical, or we’re holding people back for an excessive amount of time trying to get a seat on a plane, then I think it will just make sense to use charters.

Q: Will some of those planes leave Lebanon for Canada, or will you send these refugees to Jordan for the flights to Canada?

A: Between the three centres, we want to do this in the most economical way possible, so we’re looking at the best way to fill the planes so one plane is going to Toronto and one plane is going to Montreal. So I think we’re leaning toward most likely sending our folks to Jordan to make sure we’re filling the planes properly.

Q: So they would have to fly from here to Jordan first?

A: That’s what we’re looking at. That is the most probable scenario.

Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask you, that you want to get across to Canadians?

A: If Canadians were here, they would be thrilled to see the families come into our operations centre: the trepidation but the excitement of being considered for Canada. They should be really proud of the work that the team is doing here and they should be really proud of the effort that is happening back in Canada.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.