After refusing for months to say how many Syrian refugees have actually resettled in Canada, the federal government recently put a number on it: 2,500.
Promises are easier to come by. As the refugee crisis took over the election campaign Thursday, all three major parties pledged to accept thousands of Syrians in future through private and government sponsorship.
Critics of Canada’s refugee policy see the self-interested pledges as inadequate to the problem and to the swell of compassion for the drowned boy whose picture has captivated the world, revealing the cold economic calculus that will set the fate of his fellow refugees.
Given the small number of Syrians who have arrived in Canada, these campaign promises also stand in contrast to the claim from Chris Alexander, Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister, who said Thursday: “Canada has one of the most generous per capita immigration and refugee resettlement programs in the world.”
“It’s a little bit much to be calling it generous,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. Canada is “only generous in the sense that we haven’t had 2 million refugees arriving on our shores for whom we had legal obligations,” she said.
Canada has chosen to “sit out” the Syrian refugees crisis, she said, which is unusual given Canada’s history. Offering resettlement may not be a legal obligation, but it is a moral one, she said, and for Canada it represents “balancing out in a very minor way, because obviously we are never going to get anywhere close to the proportion of refugees that a country like Lebanon has, or Turkey.”
This unusual situation, in which poor, unstable countries are legally obliged to host the millions of refugees who arrive at their borders, while distant, rich countries like Canada quibble over accepting a few thousand, is the result of a global refugee regime Canada played a key role in creating.
But the sheer scale of the Syrian crisis, the greatest displacement since World War II, suggests a new regime may be in the works.
François Crépeau, a McGill law professor who serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said there is an “obvious urgent need” for a new global resettlement program for 2 million Syrians and Eritreans over five years, which would hamper the human smuggling market.
“Rescuing people who arrive by sea and then turning a blind eye to their plight leaving them vulnerable to human rights violations is irresponsible,” Crépeau said.
Under international law, refugees who present at a border are entitled to a fair and impartial hearing. In Canada, this is known as the inland system, and there are no quotas or numbers at play.
Quotas and promises only come into the picture in the resettlement of refugees from their countries of first asylum, which in the Syrian context is mainly Lebanon and Jordan.
Sharing this burden is a discretionary act, and Canada has a long tradition of helping, with a historical record of more than 10,000 refugees resettled each year, behind only the United States and Australia.
Canada has also helped harmonize the global regime over the last two decades, moving away from diplomatic side deals and “cherry picking” of skilled or educated refugees, toward a unified, policy driven process, overseen by the United Nations.
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“But given what we have seen in the last few weeks in Europe, this is clearly not business as usual,” said James Milner, a former UN resettlement worker in West Africa who now studies refugee policy at Carleton University, focused on protracted situations such as in Western Sahara.
“This is exactly what we saw in the late 1970s, when (there were) very similar and equally troubling photos of refugees fleeing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia by boat and washing up on the beaches of Malaysia,” he said. “There’s a very clear sense that the normal, incremental approach simply doesn’t fit.”
The crisis reveals what Milner calls the core weakness of the UN system – the great disparity between countries that take many (such as Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel has become something of a folk hero to Syrian refugees), and countries that take comparatively few (such as Britain, whose Prime Minister David Cameron changed tack on Thursday and announced thousands of refugees would be accepted, according to the country’s “moral obligation.”)
Milner said this disparity arises from the mismatch between legal obligations on countries where refugees first present themselves, such as Pakistan or Kenya or Lebanon, and the discretionary responses of countries like Canada, whose support can fluctuate according to political will, public interest, and the vagaries of election campaigns.
Eighty-five per cent of the world’s refugees are in countries that neighbour their country of origin, for example, and the average duration of a refugee situation is about 20 years.
Efrat Arbel, an assistant professor of law at UBC, said Canada has actively discouraged refugees from coming here. She cited recent court cases – the government has lost two major ones, about refugee health care, and its policy of refusing refugees from designated safe countries – as evidence Canada has been acting unconstitutionally.
“Compassion lies at the core of refugee protection. Unfortunately we haven’t seen too much of it from the Canadian government of late,” Arbel said. “We can do much more and we’re not doing it.”
Kosovar refugees were brought to Canada in emergency airlifts, and benefitted from what Dench recalled as a “seemingly unlimited budget.” Likewise, modest early support for Vietnamese refugees expanded into a major social movement, in large part because Canada allows private sponsorship.
There have been failures, notably the St. Louis, in which 908 German Jews were returned to a genocidal fate in Europe. But in sum, Canada’s refugee history has shown that, despite being surrounded by three oceans, Canada is not an island.
“Canada can’t hide behind the Atlantic,” Milner said. “We’ve shown leadership before. The longer these situations remain unmanaged, or managed in a piecemeal way, they become much more problematic.”