OTTAWA — The political debate over the plight of Syrian refugees has re-emerged in the election campaign, with media reports that suggest the Prime Minister’s Office temporarily halted their entry into Canada, citing potential security threats.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s opponents quickly accused him Thursday of once again trying to whip up public safety fears ahead of the Oct. 19 vote.
The reports say Harper’s office ordered a security review in June of government-assisted refugee cases from Syria after U.S. intelligence reports suggested the foreigners could pose a risk to that country.
The process was eventually restarted after a few weeks of delay after no threats were found. It did not affect the processing of privately sponsored files.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair pulled no punches, calling the decision to halt the process “a shame on Canada” and demanding that Harper apologize.
“We learned today that Stephen Harper intervened personally to stop the arrival of Syrian refugees,” Mulcair said at a campaign stop in Toronto, where he also reminded his audience about the stunning September images of lifeless, three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi.
“(Harper) had already done that before he appeared before us to emote, talking about his own family after seeing the body of that little child on that beach in Turkey.
“That is abject behaviour on the part of a Canadian prime minister.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called the PMO’s refugee move another example of Harper reverting to the politics of “fear and division” to distract from Conservative failures on files like the economy.
Trudeau said PMO officials had no business interfering in what he called “important processes where lives are at stake.”
“Mr. Harper over the past 10 years has … conflated the interests of the Conservative party of Canada with the actions and role of the government of Canada, which is supposed to serve all Canadians,” Trudeau said in Vaughan, Ont., where he outlined his party’s plan to commit $2 billion to improve local transit.
Earlier in the election campaign, the Syrian emergency materialized as a potentially important ballot-box issue. After the photos of Kurdi appeared, many more people demanded politicians explain how they would respond to the crisis.
Political leaders were peppered with questions for days about their positions on bringing in refugees.
Mulcair has vowed to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015, while Trudeau pledged to resettle 25,000 over the same period.
Harper has promised to bring in an additional 10,000 Syrians, if re-elected.
After facing criticism, Conservative government has also said it would accelerate the processing of refugee applications in an effort to issue “thousands more” visas before the end of this year.
The Harper government has insisted, however, that security screening would remain a top priority.
Some 2,500 refugees have arrived in Canada since the government began opening spaces for Syrians in 2013.