'It's pretty embarrassing': Experts on Canada's response to Syrian crisis
Jesse Tahirali, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, September 3, 2015 7:24PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, September 3, 2015 8:18PM EDT
In the wake of a bloody civil war and the emergence of the Islamic State, millions of Syrians have fled their homes, with many seeking safety outside the country’s borders.
With nations like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan overwhelmed by the huge influx of refugees, displaced Syrians are seeking asylum in nations across Europe and the rest of the world, including Canada.
Canada’s response to this humanitarian disaster has been put in the spotlight after the world was exposed to a photo of a three-year-old child on a Turkish beach, who drowned after a boat capsized attempting to travel to the Greek island of Kos.
Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman and Queen’s University professor Sharry Aiken weigh in on the Canadian government’s reaction to the crisis facing millions of Syrian refugees.
How does Canada compare to the rest of the world in its handling of refugees?
“Prime Minister Harper is talking about Canada being the most generous country in terms of the number of people we accept a year per capita,” Waldman told CTV News on Thursday. “What we need to understand is that there’s a difference between immigrants and refugees.”
“What he’s talking about is accepting 250,000 people a year as immigrants,” he said. “Within that number there’s a small number of people who come in as refugees.”
Waldman said those who are allowed to immigrate into Canada fall under three categories: those who have a job or skills in demand and immigrate for economic reasons; those who immigrate because they have family in Canada; and those who come here as refugees.
Refugees make up a small portion of immigrants compared to the “vast majority” of people who come to Canada each year for economic or family reasons, Waldman said.
“The image of the boy on the shore – we’re not talking about immigrants. We’re talking about refugees whose lives are in danger in their country, and who need to find a place to live because if they don’t, they’re going to be killed.”
How many Syrian refugees has Canada accepted?
“The reality is, in terms of the actual number of Syrian refugees that have been accepted in Canada since the crisis began – it’s impossible to get statistics,” Waldman said.
“The highest number I’ve seen 2,500 Syrian refugees. Other numbers I’ve seen suggests the number is somewhere around 1,500.”
And those numbers, Waldman said, include private sponsored refugees – where groups like churches, rather than the government, agree to take in refugees and feed and house them.
Compared to other countries, Canada lags behind, he said. Sweden, for example, has taken in tens of thousands of refugees, despite having about one-third the population of Canada. Germany is expected to take in at least 800,000 asylum seekers this year.
“To compare us to Sweden or Germany, it’s pretty embarrassing,” Waldman said.
What should Canada be doing to improve its response?
Aiken, who specializes in international refugee law, said for a Canadian to sponsor someone as a refugee, that person has to be formally recognized by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
“If you haven’t gotten that letter from the UNHCR, you can’t get out the door,” she told CTV News Channel from Kingston, Ont.
In dire situations, such as the Syrian civil war, such a process doesn’t work, she said. With 1.8 million refugees currently in Turkey, it could take up to two years to get that required documentation.
“Certainly, if we dropped that requirement, if we were willing to recognize that we were dealing with a crisis right now, we have to have an evacuation plan and we deal with the technicalities later – especially when there’s support for the refugees to come to Canada – that would make a big difference.”
Waldman echoed the sentiment that Canada needs to make changes to its policies, saying the government has had plenty of time to react to the crisis.
“This isn’t something that’s new. People have been calling on Canada for almost two years now,” Waldman said.
“They have to make a firm commitment and they have to work with the United Nations to identify those refugees who are in most urgent need.”
How have Canadian governments responded to similar crises in the past?
“Just look at how we responded to Kosovo,” Waldman said, referencing the government’s accelerated efforts to evacuate thousands of refugees in 1999.
“I saw people in Kosovo, they were in Canada within three months of Canada announcing they were going to do something,” he said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”