The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Where Is Canada?

Around one-half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes because of the unending, devastating civil war, mass human rights violations and acts of terrorism that have been their unrelenting reality for close to four years now.

The UN estimates that 7.6 million Syrians remain internally displaced within the country, unable or unwilling to escape into neighbouring countries. Another 3.8 million have fled the country as refugees, the overwhelming majority in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Turkey alone now shelters 1.6 million Syrian refugees. And the one million Syrians in Lebanon now make up approximately one-quarter of that country’s population. Canada would reel in the face of such numbers, urgency and need.

It has become the most enormous crisis of displacement that the world has seen in generations. The numbers of refugees and the internally displaced swamp other recent catastrophes, including Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Darfur. Conditions are, to say the least, harsh. Camps are overcrowded. Levels and quality of health care, education, housing and other basic needs are dire. The countries of refuge are overwhelmed and can no longer cope. There have been growing reports of refugees being turned away at the border, unable to cross over to safety.

The UN has repeatedly pleaded for more international assistance. The most recent financial appeal for refugee relief seeks a staggering $5.5 billion. It remains to be seen how governments will respond. Canada has contributed generously over the past several years but will need to dig deep again.

But it is not just about money. The UN has made it clear that it is time for countries like Canada to step up and directly offer shelter to refugees as well, through resettlement programs.

Most refugees do not want or need to travel further. They prefer to stay close to Syria, hoping that they will soon be able to return. But the UN estimates that about 10% of refugees in the region, approximately 380,000 women, men and children, do need to be resettled to other countries because they are at still risk or have particular vulnerabilities that cannot be adequately addressed in cramped refugee camps. That includes survivors of sexual violence and torture; widows with young children; elderly refugees in frail health; and individuals with medical needs.

Refugee resettlement is something Canada has long done well. Through government programs and through private sponsorship, many hundreds of thousands of refugees have come to Canada through resettlement over the past decades. In fact, in 1986 we received the UN’s Nansen Medal, the equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize for refugee protection, for our impressive resettlement of Indochinese refugees. It is the only time that medal has been awarded to an entire country.

So, when it comes to resettling refugees, there is experience, expertise, capacity and goodwill across the country. Canada is an obvious choice, therefore, to lead the world in responding the UN’s call.

Or that should be that Canada was an obvious choice; because unfortunately that leadership has not been forthcoming. Instead we are still relying on a pledge made in July 2013, to resettle a miserly low number of Syrian refugees, 200 through government programs and 1,100 by way of private arrangements, by the end of 2014. But with only two weeks left before that deadline, only around one-half of that low number have arrived. The slowdown would seem in large part to stem from a failure to devote sufficient resources to ensure that cases can be screened and processed smoothly and expeditiously.

That yet-unfulfilled pledge is eighteen months old. Now there is renewed urgency for Canada to make another offer. That is why the UN convened a pledging conference in early December; hoping that states would do just that, make more generous commitments.

Regrettably, Canada let that opportunity pass with nothing more than a vague assurance that an announcement would be forthcoming. But there have been promises of something forthcoming for months. Syrian refugees need commitments now, not somewhere down the road.

What could be standing in the way?

The politics are certainly right. Canada has taken a strong stand against both the Syrian government and the Islamic State forces who have forced the refugees into flight. There is every reason to offer refuge to the women, men and children fleeing from those we oppose.

And the numbers are by no means overwhelming. Amnesty International has called for a commitment to resettle 10,000 refugees over the next two years. Resettling 5,000 Syrian refugees per year in a large, prosperous country like Canada, with an existing Syrian community to help out, is easily attainable.

The back story is that there are apparently difficult discussions going on behind closed doors between Canada and the UN’s refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which revolve around religion. Canada has apparently insisted that Syrians resettled to Canada be drawn from religious minorities.

That much was confirmed in the House of Commons by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration; though without explaining which “minorities” the government has in mind. Would it be only Syrian Christians, who make up about 10% of the population of Syria, or extend also to Muslim minorities? Approximately two-thirds of all Syrians are Sunni Muslims. The UN has reportedly balked, urging instead that Canada agree to resettle according to need, without discrimination on the grounds of religion.

The Parliamentary Secretary’s admission only deepens fears within the Syrian community in Canada that the government’s baffling reluctance to make a generous resettlement offer might be related to the fact that the majority of the refugees are Muslim.

It is, to say the least, a troubling and confusing situation. Speculation continues about the government’s motives. But the bottom line is that as months pass, the risks faced by Syrian refugees deepen and Canada sits on its hands.

The way ahead is as clear as it is simple. A commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016, chosen on the basis of need, would both dispel the rumours and provide protection.

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