Toronto Star's View: Canada should offer haven to...
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Nov 11, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Toronto Star's View: Canada should offer haven to more caught in global refugee crisis

Canada’s refugee intake has been stable for the past 20 years. But relative to the size of our population, which has grown 23 per cent in that time, it is hardly impressive

OurWindsor.Ca

The world is awash with refugees, asylum-seekers and people displaced from their homes. The United Nations reports that the number of people uprooted by violence, grinding poverty, persecution or other woes has topped 50 million — the highest level since World War II seven decades ago.

It’s a grim marker, fed by the brutal civil war in Syria that has displaced 9 million people, and it hits hardest at the young. Star writers Tanya Talaga, Scott Simmie, Oakland Ross and Mitch Potter are putting faces to this sea of displaced humanity in an ongoing series of articles, the Flight of Their Lives, recounting the tales of young people trying to make a perilous passage to safety.

They include the story of Nazar, a 16-year-old Syrian Kurd whose desperate family paid smugglers a small fortune to get him to far-off Denmark and a hoped-for better life, but who now finds himself marooned alone and friendless in Greece, a country that can’t afford to cope with the waves of migration washing over it. And Sayed, 17, who fled Afghanistan and also wound up in Greece. He was trying to make it to Sweden. He trekked across mountain ranges until his feet bled, then braved the high seas in a rubber dinghy. As they pine for their families neither youth knows what the future may hold. They are in limbo.

And they are among the lucky ones. More than 4,000 refugees and asylum-seekers have perished in the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere this past year, trying to reach safe havens in Europe from the chaos in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Congo, Eritrea, Nigeria, Libya and elsewhere. Others have died in Mexico’s badlands trying to make it from gang-ridden South and Central America to the United States and Canada. Or fleeing troubled countries in Asia, including Burma, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

Their tales of hardship, terror, exploitation and death challenge us all. While Canada has a credible record of taking in refugees and asylum-seekers, the sheer scope of the current crisis puts our generosity and openness to the test.

Last year Canada took in some 12,000 refugees, roughly split between government-assisted and privately sponsored, and we accepted 8,000 asylum claims. Despite a sharp dip in 2012 the refugee intake has been largely stable for the past 20 years. But relative to the size of our population, which has grown 23 per cent in that time, it is hardly impressive. And we’ve seen nothing on the scale of our decision 35 years ago to take in 60,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian “boat people” in just 18 months.

Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative administration has been bringing in fewer government-assisted refugees, and relying more on private sponsors. It has passed laws that deter asylum-seekers from making claims here. And it has tightened the rules on private sponsorships. As the Star has said before, this is a shameful climb-down from our past generosity.

It’s especially discouraging at a time when the UN reports the need is so great. The formal global refugee population has swelled to nearly 17 million, and asylum-seekers to 1 million. Another 33 million are internally displaced within their own borders.

Nowhere is Canada’s slack response more dismally evident than in the case of Syria. The Harper government committed to taking in a very modest 1,300 refugees by the end of this year from a country with 9 million on the run, and has resettled just a few hundred newcomers to date. This at a time when the UN is trying to find refuge for at least 100,000 more Syrians, and when humanitarian groups in Canada have urged Ottawa to resettle 10,000 or more.

Canada has contributed generously — $630 million — to UN efforts to provide Syrians with food, shelter, medical help and schooling. It would be good to see that level of generosity extend to Syrian refugees as well. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has hinted at a large-scale resettlement program, but hasn’t followed through. On that score we are doing the bare minimum.

Clearly, it’s time to re-examine Canada’s broader approach to refugees, to signal that our compassion has not dried up and to serve notice that we expect better of government. As the Star’s foreign team has forcefully reminded us, people are desperate to rebuild lives shattered by war and hobbled by want. Decency demands that we provide more than token help.

Toronto Star

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