2014-04-26 Flag Rasing Ceremony Toronto, by Senator Thanh Hai Ngo

Why Canada is Accepting so Few Syrian Refugees

Canada’s role in the Syrian refugee crisis was thrown into sharp relief last week, when the now sadly famous photo of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi, lifeless on a Turkish beach, grabbed the world’s attention. As the story unraveled, it became known that Canada was where the Kurdi family had hoped to seek asylum, only to have these hopes dashed in a tangled bureaucratic mess just months prior.

The public outcry was immediate and powerful, so much so that Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister interrupted his re-election campaign to address the matter. Canada’s treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers all of sudden became an issue discussed across the world, particularly in the Canadian public debate as the country prepares to head to the polls next month to decide whether to give the Conservative government, in power since 2006, a third majority. With 54% of Canadians saying the government should take in more refugees, the Syrian refugee question has become a central election issue.

From human rights leader to restrictive policies

Canada is traditionally known for its liberal internationalist approach to global governance, and for having been a leader in advancing human rights, conflict resolution and peace across the world. It is, for example, known as the champion of one of the fundamental precepts of modern humanitarianism, the Responsibility to Protect. Furthermore – and notwithstanding the early groups of European refugees and immigrants of the 20th century who came to Canada before there even were international legal instruments in place – Canada has not only welcomed but provided a permanent home for wave after wave of refugees seeking a safer, better life.  For example, Canada was able to resettle 5,000 Kosovar refugees in a few months, in a time of urgent need. Other examples of Canadian openness include the resettlement of 35,000 Hungarian refugees in the 50s, and 60,000 Vietnamese refugees in the 70s.

But Canada, especially over the course of the past decade, has changed. When comparing these numbers to how many Syrian refugees have so far been resettled in Canada – approximately 2,500, according to the government, though it refuses to publish official statistics regarding how many refugees have actually been resettled – the response is paltry indeed. In a recent piece entitled “Why Canada should take in 20 times more refugees” Scott Gilmore noted that “According to the federal government, Canada usually accepts 10,000 refugees per year. That is 1/60 of one per cent of the total global refugee population. That’s like spitting on a house fire.”

An overly burdensome process

Currently, if/when asylum-seekers arrive in Canada, they are placed in detention, from where they are expected to to put their application together to be presented at a hearing in only 60 days. In a recent op-ed, Canada’s top refugee lawyers lash out at the government for creating a bureaucratic nightmare around the processing of asylum applications, noting that “the processing of an application to resettle a Syrian refugee can take 18 months or longer”, and “if Canadians try to sponsor a Syrian refugee from Lebanon or Jordan, the file will sit on a visa officer’s desk in Beirut for about 12 months before the refugee will even be interviewed.” They conclude by asking “Are we seriously to believe that the federal government cannot do better in an emergency?”

Beyond the unnecessary complexity of the bureaucratic process, there have been other  legal changes over the course of the last few years that have made life more difficult for refugees and asylum-seekers. Legislation passed in 2012 created a list of “safe” countries from where asylum claimants from those countries would not be eligible for an appeal; introduced mandatory, automatic detention for certain groups of refugees – at the discretion of the minister – ; and also cut health benefits to refugee claimants and asylum seekers. As the Canadian Council of Refugees executive director Janet Dench said, Canada’s focus is much more on who isn’t deserving protection than on the vulnerable who do need to be protected.

What the candidates are saying

The Canadian government has consistently maintained that their handling of refugee claims is sufficient – even generous – as part of a broader strategy to defeat ISIS in the Middle East, through a combination of military intervention and humanitarian support. Though the Conservatives are pledging to allow 10,000 more refugees from Syria (and Iraq) if re-elected, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, said in a recent interview that there is no “refugee-based solution” to this crisis, and that Canada needs to be focused on “counter[ing] the cause of this problem which is a violent movement attempting to conquer an area and kill and displace millions and millions of people.”

Opposition leaders are saying the government is not doing enough to address a crisis of this magnitude, and promise to bring change to the current process, starting with proposing to resettle more Syrian refugees. Tom Mulcair‘s left-leaning NDP party promises to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of this year, and increase that by 9,000 per year through 2019. Justin Trudeau repeated his Liberal party’s position that Canada would, under his government, take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by Jan 1, 2016.

For a more humane and practical approach

Canada, a rich country, with a wealth of resources – financial and social – has the ability to make a difference in the Syrian refugee crisis. Some minor adjustments, like fast-tracking all applications for Syrian claimants and removing unreasonable documentation requirements, could make a life-saving difference. Bigger changes, such as the allocation of a substantial budget to proactively assist vulnerable displaced Syrians – both in coming to Canada and getting settled – , and working more closely with the UNHCR to prioritize persons of concern, would be even better. Even Canada’s top military brass have been making concrete, practical suggestions as to how the country could quickly and efficiently accept more refugees.

Whoever wins the election next month should help the Canadian government reconnect with its noble tradition, and open to the door to Syrian refugees – more than just a crack. During World War II, Canada turned  back a Jewish refugee ship, sending nearly 1,000 people back to war and danger in Europe, where many of them were eventually killed. At the time, an immigration officer had said of the Jewish refugees that “none is too many”, a phrase which unfortunately still seems to find its echo today. This incident, regarded as a dark and embarrassing chapter of Canadian history, is present and vivid in the minds of those advocating for the Canadian government to change the current Syrian refugee policy.

Photo information: The National Flag raising ceremony in Toronto is an event that commemorates a Journey of Freedom , the Fall of the Republic of Vietnam to the communists on April 30th 1975.This ceremonial event is an opportunity for the Vietnamese living in Ontario to reiterate their gratefulness to the Canadian people and government for the acceptance of Vietnamese refugees into Canada.