In 2010, I visited Syria with my family and we found the people there to be friendly and gracious. But a cruel civil war has now forced an estimated two million Syrians to seek refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and even Iraq, neighbouring countries ill-equipped for such a surge. The UN has pleaded with countries, such as Canada, to provide a home for at least some of those displaced people. Sweden agreed to accept 15,000, Germany 5,000, the U.S. 2000, and in July 2013 Canada agreed to accept 1,300. In March 2014, however, the Toronto Star reported that only about 10 government-sponsored refugees had managed to enter Canada the previous year.
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander attempted to shift part of the blame to churches and other groups who sponsor refugees in Canada. “We encourage sponsorship agreement holders to do their part to help displaced Syrians as well,” she said. This claim is particularly galling because there are groups willing to sponsor refugees but cannot do so because they are waiting for the government to provide names and permission.
Contrast today’s situation to that of 1956, when Canada admitted more than 37,000 Hungarians following the Soviet Union’s crack down on an uprising in that country. In 1979, Ottawa also responded to a refugee crisis in South-East Asia by announcing that 50,000 people would be resettled in Canada by the end of 1980. The Canadian Council for Refugees says that for the years 1978-81, refugees made up 25% of all immigrants to Canada.
But we now have a government that routinely vilifies people who have fled war and persecution. They are regularly accused of being “bogus refugees” who merely want to exploit the generosity of Canadians. Amnesty International’s Alex Neve says that the use of the term “bogus refugee claimants” by Minister Alexander is inflammatory and meaningless.
“How can the Minister possibly be labelling any refugee claimant as bogus before their claim has been evaluated?” Neve recently wrote in the legal magazine Slaw. “It may very well be accepted. It may in fact be exceptionally strong and compelling. He does not know.”
In June 2012, Ottawa also prevented asylum seekers from accessing health care by alleging (falsely) that refugee claimants were receiving better health care than Canadians. Doctors and health care providers then begged to have those cuts reversed, staging public protests against a move that they said would impair the health of vulnerable people.
A recent study confirms that is exactly what has happened. Emergency admission rates of refugee children at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children doubled after Ottawa cut health care coverage for asylum seekers. Parents delayed seeking medical help until their children became extremely ill, and as a result, more of the children had to be hospitalized. Nevertheless, the Hospital for Sick Children provided health coverage while Ottawa’s financial responsibility was picked up by the province of Ontario.
At least five other provinces have continued to provide health services to asylum seekers, even though that has traditionally been a responsibility borne by the federal government.
In 1999, Canadian church leaders issued the statement entitled, Let us Welcome the Stranger. They talked about the biblical exhortation to “welcome the stranger who comes seeking peace and safety in our country.” Alas, Canada’s government is attempting to replace this hallowed tradition by sowing fear and distrust in its place.