OTTAWA — Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino says there will be a new path to Canada for refugees who fear persecution because of their defence of human rights.
The new stream will include anyone facing persecution for advocating or defending human rights, with a special emphasis on journalists, women, and advocates for LGBTQ and two-spirit people.
Human rights and democracy are "under siege" around the world, Mendicino said. He added Canada recognizes that refugees, in addition to people displaced by conflict, can also be those forced to flee because they worked to record human rights abuses, or defend the rights of others.
"From authoritarian regimes to organized crime, the threats have never been more severe," Mendicino said.
"That means those who stand up for human rights need our protection more than ever."
Canada's new stream will be open to up to 250 human-rights defenders a year, including members of their families.
Canada is partnering with the United Nations Refugee Agency and international organizations such as Front Line Defenders and ProtectDefenders.eu, which specialize in aiding people who face threats because of their work to defend rights around the world.
Andrew Anderson, the executive director of Front Line Defenders, said Canada is one of the first countries to incorporate special refugee recognition for the defenders of human rights, and is going further than any other government has to date.
"We hope not only that this initiative will be successful and provide much needed support for those human rights defenders who need it, but also be an example that other governments will follow in order to ensure a strengthened international protection for human-rights defenders at risk," he said.
Anderson said he also sees the program as a recognition of the critical but risky role human-rights defenders play around the world.
Gerald Staberock, chair of ProtectDefenders.eu, said most people defending human rights want to stay in their home countries and continue their work. But for some that's no longer possible.
"I think it is in those situations that this scheme will make a real-life difference to human rights defenders," he said. "It is like a safety net, a safety option that is very, very important."
Mendicino said the organizations will help Canada identify and connect people needing resettlement protection. Applicants must be referred to Canada by the United Nations Refugee Agency, and meet Canadian screening requirements, including security and health checks.
He said there is a growing need for this help, particularly for journalists, and that he hopes the first refugees under the program will arrive in Canada before the end of the year.
"We have seen an alarming trend that journalists in particular have come under serious threat where they face intimidation, harassment, torture, and even death," said Mendicino.
The International Federation of Journalists documented the killing of 65 journalists in 16 different countries in 2020, including 14 in Mexico; 10 in Afghanistan; nine in Pakistan; and eight in India. In 2019, there were 49.
It also said in March there were at least 229 journalists in prison because of their work.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 16, 2021.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the surname of Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.