Refugees Welcome! (Now what?)

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Immigration and refugee policy had been conspicuously absent from the Canadian campaign trail until last week when, on a day when many children were heading back to school, the body of 2-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. He had drowned with his mother and brother while trying to cross the Mediterranean in a dinghy.

There has been a lot said and written in the last few days, and more to come, to be sure. Lots of blaming. Lots of politicizing. Lots of hand-wringing.

Obviously the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians (not to ignore other chronically displaced populations such as Eritreans, Afghanis and Iraqis) is a complicated problem. No one is going to solve it in one Tweet. But for those paying even peripheral attention to the situation in Syria, it was a slow-mo train wreck. And the dust hasn’t even started to settle.

Countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are shouldering a disproportionate burden of the displaced populations. Meanwhile the Gulf States, masters at doing nothing to pick up any slack or provide anything other than token funding and marginal lip-service, haven’t stepped up in the slightest. No surprise there, as they have become really good at not helping the most perpetually displaced population on the planet: Palestinians. And it’s been decades. But you know what? That’s on them. It’s no excuse for the rest of the world to do nothing.

When I was in Malta in 2012, I couldn’t help but notice that, right there, in the middle of the Mediterranean, the population was strikingly ethnically homogenous. Where were the Somalis? Where were the Iraqis? I didn’t get it. And yet, the local newspapers had a lot of opinion pieces about the “threat” of “migrants” from Africa. I wondered where the fear was coming from.

Eventually, it was explained to me by the locals: Historically, the EU paid Libya to police the Mediterranean, and intercept refugees and migrants, returning them back to Africa via (no doubt) horrific methods and treatment. Libya wasn’t a signatory to any UN conventions on human rights and could “clean up” the Mediterranean with impunity. And in fact, be paid to do so.

This is one of the most shocking things I have ever heard, and there isn’t a lot of proof of it, so I hope my understanding is wrong or exaggerated, but that is how it was explained to me. Once Gaddafi’s regime fell, there was no one to do the EU’s dirty work. And once Gaddafi was gone and there was little structure left in Libya, it stopped with the rendition model and became all about the smuggle.

By 2012, the fear of large migrant populations had made it into the collective conscience in Malta.

Cut to 2015.

By this spring, the increasing numbers of people ending up on the shores of Greece and Italy has become a crisis. The UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants was interviewed in the Guardian and had these words, which resonate very sadly today:

We should do for the Syrians what we did 30 years ago for the Indochinese, and that’s a comprehensive plan of action where all global north countries – and that includes Europe, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand and probably other countries – offer a great number of Syrians an option so that they would line up in Istanbul, Amman and Beirut for a meaningful chance to resettle, instead of paying thousands of euros only to die with their children in the Mediterranean.

[Around the same time, Citizenship and Immigration Canada issued a press release boasting that it had finalized its first set of permanent residence applications under Express Entry in less than 3 months.]

The problem with the #refugeecrisis today is that there is a massive bottleneck in processing overseas applications, to the point of paralysis. Group of 5 Sponsorship applications take years to finalize and require near-impossible documentation. The processing centre in Winnipeg is taking months just to open the envelope and enter the application into the system to begin processing. If you have missed a document, the application will get returned to you unprocessed and you have to resubmit anew. By then, the immigration forms will have changed, meaning new signatures and updates have to be prepared, just to get the thing placed into the queue. And private sponsorship is no substitute for what the government can and ought to be doing.

Compounding the problem is that Canada has clearly dropped the ball on its plans to offer asylum to Syrian refugees. Instead of taking meaningful steps to inform Canadians and fix the problem, our Immigration Minister has chosen to deflect blame and criticize the media and other political parties. It has been profoundly disappointing to see a seasoned diplomat, who served in Afghanistan, and who is rumoured to be smart, principled and competent, react with more vitriol than compassion.

Worse, we still don’t know the numbers. As of writing, there have been no recent updates on the CIC or Government of Canada website on exactly how many Syrians are being processed and have actually arrived in Canada in 2015. Incidentally, there is an update of September 2, 2015 regarding Canadian military operations in Syria. So it’s not like the government is too busy to post updates on what it’s up to overseas.

There are quite a few suggestions floating around on what Canada can do to expedite processing and bring people here faster. Calgary immigration lawyer, Raj Sharma, makes some good suggestions on how the overseas process can be streamlined. Others recall how Vietnamese and Kosovar refugees were brought to Canada and processed inland, rather than languish years overseas while the paperwork is finalized. Why can’t we fly a few military planes of refugees to Greenwood like we did in 1999?

Finally, perspective is important. The world is mostly a peaceful place. And people are mostly healthy, educated, safe and protected. So there is plenty of room for compassion and aid. When faced with a crisis of this magnitude and geographic breadth, Canadians feel generally helpless.

What can we realistically do? Do we really believe that some of those people who risked their lives in rubber dinghies may be extremists who have gambled that they won’t drown in the Mediterranean and will be granted entry to a northern/western country only to turn rogue and attack us? Or are we prepared to offer safe haven to our fair share of the most vulnerable?

My humble suggestion is that we err on the side of informed generosity and global responsibility.

And do it quickly.