Welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada, we cannot turn away

Canadians cannot turn away. We must accept Syrian refugees
Syrian refugees disembark in Greece, UNHCR photo

It is heartening to see Canadians rallying to welcome Syrian refugees but before we congratulate ourselves too heartily we should acknowledge that our contributions are modest and the need is great.  In the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals rashly promised to provide for 25,000 government-sponsored refugees by December 31, 2015. Immigration Minister John McCallum has now announced that this deadline cannot be met and it has been moved back. That is sensible but it also represents a sleight of hand. 

Revised plan 

The revised plan is for Ottawa to sponsor 15,000 Syrians by March 1, 2016 and to rely on private sponsorships, including faith groups, for the remaining 10,000. McCallum has also promised an additional 10,000 government sponsorships by the end of 2016. That means it will take the Liberals 15 months to accomplish what they promised to do in three months in terms of government sponsorships.

That political deception aside, private sponsors appear ready to do their share to help out. I frequently attend at an Ottawa church which decided recently to sponsor related families involving nine Syrians. The cost to the congregation to support the new arrivals for one year will be approximately $60,000 but nobody blinked and the motion to proceed was accepted unanimously.

Vetting refugees

Unfortunately, recent despicable attacks in Beirut, Paris and Mali have created some fear and uncertainty in Canada regarding Syrian and other refugees. Those attacks, however, were carried out for the most part by home grown terrorists and not refugees. What’s more, the Canadian government will accept only those Syrians already in refugee camps and who have been vetted by both the United Nations and Canadian officials. In fact, Canada’s priority will be to accept  women, children and families but it will refuse to consider most single men as government sponsored refugees. This is discriminatory and not necessary given all of the safeguards in place.

Millions displaced 

Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes by armed conflict. The United Nations says that seven million have been internally displaced. Another four million who fled the country have become convention refugees, while many others remain undocumented. Most of these people are living in neighbouring countries which can ill afford to support them: 1.5 million in Lebanon – about one refugee for every four Lebanese; 1.4 million in Jordan; and 1.9 million in Turkey.

Humanitarian assistance

We must resettle Syrian refugees but that is only part of the solution. There is an urgent need for humanitarian assistance allowing people to remain in host countries such as Lebanon until they can go back home. The United Nations Food Program also needs more support. The UN has been forced to limit rations and to shut down entirely in some areas because it lacks money to purchase food. The world’s governments must step up their humanitarian assistance and individuals can also donate to organizations such as the Humanitarian Coalition, the Mennonite Central Committee or the Red Cross, all of them credible organizations involved on the ground.

Political solutions

Ultimately, however, the solution must be a political and diplomatic one which ends the civil war in Syria. The Assad dictatorship continues to attack and bomb its own people; ISIS and other jihadist groups are carving out large portions of Syria and Iraq for their dreamed of caliphate; other countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, are engaged in a proxy war in Syria; and finally the United States, Russia, France and Canada have all been bombing at will. Ironically, our bombs are partly responsible for creating at least some of the refugees who we will now be accepting in Canada.

No turning back

A political resolution to the conflict remains elusive so in the interim we should continue to resettle refugees and provide humanitarian assistance. We cannot turn away.  I overheard a resettlement coordinator for a Canadian NGO say recently that this is a marathon and not a sprint.

A shorter version of this post appeared on my blog for the United Church Observer on November 26, 2015.

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