Time for Canada to step up on Syrian refugee crisis, now

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Download CPJ’s Petition calling on the Government of Canada to increase the resettlement quota for Syrian refugees to 10,000 under an accelerated program. (PDF)

Read CPJ’s letter to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander calling on Canada to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. 

Originally published in The Hill Times.

To stay true to its word, and its math, Canada should commit to welcoming 10,000 Syrian refugees.

If Canada were Syria, everyone in Sudbury would be dead. Montreal, Metro Vancouver, Montreal, and the Maritimes would be deserted. One hundred and eighty-five school buses full of children would have been killed. That’s the message spreading on Twitter with the hash tag #IfWeWereSyrian.

The social media campaign by two Istanbul-based Canadian journalists translates the numbers from the Syrian conflict onto the populations of the G7 countries. In Japan, central Tokyo would be deserted; in the U.K., all of London would have fled. To date, the growing conflict has created 2.81 million refugees, with the vast majority being shuffled around the Middle East. Neighbouring Jordan, which is now home to nearly 600,000 Syrian refugees, ranks third highest in the world for water scarcity and has an official unemployment rate of 14 per cent, but people on the street put the number between 30 and 50 per cent. Canada, the U.S., the EU and Australia—wealthy by comparison—have resettled just 15,365 Syrian refugees combined: half of one per cent of the total.

So perhaps the Twitter campaign doesn’t go far enough. If we’re not shocked into caring for the displaced by imagining our own wreckage (perhaps we don’t know anyone in Sudbury…) then maybe some old-fashioned peer pressure could work. Maybe we should start tweeting that #IfCanadaWereLebanon, we would have already welcomed more than a million Syrian refugees to an area the size of Cape Breton Island. Instead, Canada has agreed to accept barely a tenth of Cape Breton’s population to the entire country.

Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, was in Ottawa at the end of last month to meet with Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. He was grateful for Canada’s generous monetary aid to the region, but pushed for Canada to resettle more Syrian refugees.The UNHCR appeal is for 100,000 Syrians to be resettled around the world.

Canada made it a priority to resettle 5,000 Kosovan and 5,000 Bosnian refugees in the 1990s and 60,000 Indochinese refugees in 1980. Citizenship and Immigration proudly says that Canada traditionally resettles one in every 10 refugees resettled worldwide. To stay true to its word—and its math—Canada should commit to welcoming 10,000 Syrian refugees.

So far, Canada has committed to resettle just 1,300 by the end of 2014, a target not likely to be met. And of the promised arrivals, the government allocated 85 per cent to private sponsorship, meaning churches, non-profits, and individual volunteers will be paying for rent, groceries, furniture, and medication costs for up to a year. The government will be handling the settlement expenses for a grand total of 200 Syrians.

One representative from a sponsorship agreement holder organization remembers first hearing that private sponsors would be called upon to bring 1,100 Syrians to Canada in 2014. The number itself wasn’t so much an issue as how she found out about the new caseload expectations: she heard the quota announced on CBC Radio along with the rest of the country.

This blatant lack of consultation is disappointing in the only nation to ever win the UN’s Nansen Medal for outstanding service to the cause of refugees and displaced people. #IfCanadaWereLebanon, maybe we’d deserve it again. Instead, the last few years have marked a destructive shift in Canada’s refugee policy.

In a 2012 decision condemned by all provincial and territorial health ministers, along with 20 national health-care organizations, the government made cuts to refugee health care that leave some claimants and asylum seekers without any coverage for lifesaving care, even in the case of a heart attack or seizure. A group of doctors and lawyers are currently challenging these cuts at the Federal Court, and medical professionals across the country are protesting the cuts in 17 cities today, including on Parliament Hill at noon. On Thursday, another lunch-time rally at the Human Rights Monument will urge the government to increase the number of Syrians resettled.

Canada is no longer the refugee-award-winning nation of old. This Refugee Week, Canada is unrecognizable from even a decade ago not because everyone in Sudbury is dead, or because everyone from Vancouver and the Maritimes is on the run—but because if they were, I’m no longer certain we would do everything in our power to help. #IfWeWereSyrian, we might respond like a young Syrian man asked in 2007 about the influx of Iraqis to his country seeking refuge. “Do you see this cup?” he asked, picking one up off the table. “Once we were three people sharing from this cup. Then two more joined us. Now we are five people drinking from this cup. What shall we do?” he asked. “How can we turn people away?”

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