A Failure to Protect: Canada’s Shameful Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Emma Kenyon and Patti Tamara Lenard

The Canadian government’s response to the Syria refugee crisis is pathetic. In the face of what some are calling the worst refugee crisis in a generation—in 2013 the number of registered Syrian refugees grew to 2.2 million, and tens of thousands are waiting to be registered—the Canadian government has pledged to resettle just 1,300 refugees, only 200 of whom will be government-assisted. Moreover, the government, which announced its intentions in July, has given itself until the end of 2014 to resettle these refugees. This is a complete reversal of Canada’s long history of setting the global standard for swift and emphatic humanitarian action. Our government’s weak response is a source of international embarrassment, reflecting an unwillingness to take seriously its international duties to refugees.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees registered one million refugees between May and December of this year. Moreover, the UNHCR predicts the number will balloon to 3.5 million in the coming months. Of these, the UNHCR is attempting to resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees (just over 1% of the total Syrian refugee population) by the end of 2014. So far, it has received a commitment from just 16 countries to resettle only 10,000 refugees.

In the face of other crises, the government has increased its target, knowing that in cases of desperate need, the duty of stable, wealthy, states is heightened.

Each year, the Canadian government admits refugees for settlement to Canada, ranging from a recent peak of 40,000 admissions in 1980 to a mere 10,000 in 2012. Not only is Canada’s commitment to resettling refugees declining in general; refugee admissions in 2012 declined a precipitous 26% from the previous year, even as millions of Syrian refugees were fleeing their homes in search of protection. Yet in the face of a massive refugee crisis, at a time in which the government’s self-reporting indicates that it is failing to meet its own (already inadequate) refugee commitments, Canada will admit only 1300 Syrian refugees. Further, just over 1000 of these refugees will be admitted via private arrangements, often through churches or families who agree to pay the costs and support the refugee once he or she arrives. Only 200 Syrian refugees will be accommodated via the government-assisted resettlement program as part of our annual quota for refugee admissions.

Private sponsorship arrangements can take time—time that refugees do not have to spare. It can take as long as six months for a private sponsorship application to be processed, and not all private sponsorship applications are successful. Recently, nearly 160 privately sponsored refugees from Djibouti were denied status in Canada despite the community supports that were available to them upon their arrival. To make matters worse, Canada suspended the visa and immigration section of its embassy in Damascus in the spring of 2012, making it impossible for refugees to access Canadian protection from within their own country. Syrian refugees living in Cairo can expect to wait as long as 40 months for their application to be processed. It can take up to 20 months in Beirut. Given these wait times, it’s not surprising that some analysts expect that Canada will miss its resettlement target of the end of 2014. And the notion that Canada—a country with a long and venerable history of settling large numbers of refugees—requires 17 months to resettle 1300 refugees is laughable.

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In the past, Canada has taken extraordinary steps to offer protection to refugees fleeing crises. In the face of other crises, the government has increased its target, knowing that in cases of desperate need, the duty of stable, wealthy, states is heightened. In 1999, Canada resettled 5,500 Kosovo refugees, using its emergency humanitarian evacuation program. At that time, there were over 300,000 Kosovo refugees waiting to be resettled. Refugees were airlifted to Canadian military bases for resettlement in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Through private sponsorship and government assistance, these refugees were given immediate temporary housing at various hotels, medical care and settlement services. In 1992, Canada resettled 5,000 Bosnian refugees. At that time, approximately 1 million refugees had fled and were being hosted by neighboring countries. Canada was one of several countries to do its part in shouldering the burden of refugee protection. In both of these cases, the response was swift: Canada did not allot itself a year and a half to respond to the emergency situations, but instead provided direct and immediate action.

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Canada has a long history of abiding by international refugee commitments. Certainly the government has condemned the violence in Syria and has voiced support for the Syrian population and the refugees fleeing to safety. It has also provided $200 million in aid to support Syrian victims of the war. Yet its policies, at best, provide little tangible support to those attempting to flee and to reunite with their families in Canada; and do little to alleviate the pressures on host countries.

At worst, the government is deliberately mounting challenges and laying obstacles to Syrian refugees in their bid to come to Canada. Not only is Canada’s commitment to resettle just 1,300 refugees (at no additional cost to the government) shockingly weak, the government also appears to be resisting calls to facilitate the processing of applications to enable this resettlement to occur. In this case, actions speak far louder than words. The government owes the public a justification for inexcusably impeding even the most basic humanitarian efforts.

Emma Kenyon is a graduate of the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs

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