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Kenney defends taking Iran, Iraq refugees over Syrians on trip to Turkish camp

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OTTAWA - The NDP and a Syrian Canadian group are questioning why Immigration Minister Jason Kenney chose to accept Iraqi and Iranian refugees when he visited fleeing Syrians in Turkey last month.

They accuse Kenney of misleading the Canadian public by touting his visit as being in support of Syrian refugees, which currently number about 200,000 in Turkey, when Canada opted instead to take 5,000 Iraqis and Iranians.

But Kenney's office says there's a perfectly good explanation for the decision: Turkey won't let any fleeing Syrians leave the country until the United Nations officially declares them actual refugees.

Kenney's aides also say Canada is currently co-operating with the UN's refugee agency, which doesn't want to push the resettlement of the hundreds of thousands of fleeing Syrians just yet.

The UN wants all countries to push for a political solution to the two-year-old civil Syrian civil war, which has claimed 90,000 lives, displaced four million people internally and forced 925,000 to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

"For the average person, they saw Minister Kenney, government of Canada representative, in the camps of Turkey and that we were going to do something to help Syrian refugees," NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said Thursday.

"This had nothing to do with the slaughter in Syria, it was about Iraq and Iran.... But why play this game, which is obviously a sensitive issue for so many?"

Dewar was appearing at a press conference on Parliament Hill in support of the Syrian Canadian Council, a group that accuses Kenney of snubbing them.

They say Kenney and the government hasn't done enough to reunite them with family members still trapped in Syria or the surrounding region. Kenney has said he is concerned about their plight and would like to do more.

"We obviously understand the anxiety Syrian Canadians are feeling right now," Kenney's spokeswoman Ana Curic said in an interview.

Curic said that until most of the people in the Turkish camps that Canadians would like to sponsor don't have the UNHCR documentation necessary to obtain a Turkish exit visa.

"Until they get a decision from the UNHCR they can't even get out of Turkey, there's nothing we can do. That's Turkish law."

Moreover, Curic said, Canada can't make unilateral decisions on taking refugees.

"We work very closely with our international partners, and with the UN. And the UN right now has recommended they are not yet contemplating resettlement of Syrian refugees because the crisis is relatively recent," Curic added.

"They urge all countries — and Canada is doing this — to push a political solution to end the violence."

Meanwhile, the international aid agency Oxfam warned Thursday that the Syrian humanitarian abyss is deepening.

The agency said 5,000 people are fleeing Syria each day, 36 per cent more than in December.

It said that the UN's worst case scenario of one million refugees — originally projected for June — would be realized in weeks.

Faisal Alazem, spokesman for the Syrian Canadian Council, he's been pressing for a meeting with Kenney since last fall to talk about getting Syrians with families in Canada out of harms way.

But Curic said Kenney has been meeting regularly with Syrian Canadians, including a meeting with a group in Ottawa on Wednesday night.

Last week he met "a couple of organizations" that represent Syrian Canadians in Montreal, and he's held meetings in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, she said.

"For one organization to stand up and claim they're the only organization that represents Syrian Canadians is a bit strange," said Curic.

After Dewar raised the issue in the House of Commons earlier this month, Kenney's office contacted Alazem and scheduled a meeting with the minister's officials for mid-March.

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