Canadian parties clash over Syrian refugee crisis
OTTAWA - Aylan Kurdi died in the Mediterranean after his family fled their war-torn home of Syria in search of a safe haven in Europe. He met the same tragic fate as thousands of other Syrians seeking refuge from the war.
Prior to attempting the trip, Aylan’s family applied for resettlement in Canada’s British Columbia where members of their extended family live. Their application was rejected.
The picture of the 3-year-old Syrian boy face down on the shores of Turkey horrified the global community and prompted people around the world to call on their governments to respond to the humanitarian crisis facing Syrian refugees. Across Canada, groups and individuals called for greater consideration of the country’s immigration laws and its contribution to humanitarian aid to those affected in Syria.
Canada’s Conservative government, which has called early federal elections for October 19th, has been criticised for tightening the country’s immigration and refugee policies.
In January, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years. As of August, about 1,000 had arrived in Canada, of which less than 20% were government-sponsored. The Conservatives have now pledged to accept an additional 10,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria over the next four years, if re-elected.
Canadian opposition parties have accused the government of relying too much on a private sponsorship programme, in which individuals and non-governmental organisations initiate and fund the resettlement process.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) reacted to the refugee crisis with what they called a “concrete plan”, promising to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, if they win the October elections.
“They [the Conservatives] only could muster up 1,300 refugees to commit to and it took them three years to even get to that number, which is drastically low,” said Paul Dewar, the NDP critic for Foreign Affairs.
The Conservative government had formed its resettlement policy for refugees from Iraq and Syria to give priority to religious or ethnic minorities, a practice criticised by the opposition as exclusionary and discriminatory.
Dewar said the government’s way in dealing with the refugee crisis is “terribly misguided”.
“It shows more of an ideological approach than an evidence-based, responsible approach,” Dewar said. “We should be bringing in and accepting refugees based on the assessment that they have had to seek refuge.”
Harper, however, rejected calls for Canada to accept more Syrian refugees, insisting that increasing resettlement to Canada is not a solution to the crisis. He instead suggests that Canada should focus on further military intervention against the Islamic State (ISIS), which he says is the root of the conflict in Syria and the region.
This policy “entirely ignores who’s at fault for the quarter million people who have died in the civil war in Syria”, noted Dewar. “Yes ISIS is in Iraq and in parts of Syria but the majority of the [Syrian] people who are refugees now are the result of Bashar Assad and his campaign of murder of his own citizens.”
The Liberal Party, the other major opposition party, on September 6th called for an unprecedented meeting to reach a Canadian consensus on the Syrian refugee crisis. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said he supports sending Canadian military planes with immigration officials to Syria’s neighbouring countries to airlift Syrian refugees out of the region. Canada conducted a similar mission in 1979, transporting Vietnamese refugees to Canada.
Canada has contributed $700 million to Syrian aid efforts since 2011.
“It cost us more… to sustain a refugee outside of Canada than to sustain someone in your home,” said Nadia Abu-Zahra, a professor of global studies at the University of Ottawa who specialises in refugee issues and barriers of migration.
Abu-Zahra contends that Canadians want to do all that they can to help the Syrian people and that there are many willing to support private sponsorships of refugees. However, she notes, “Unless our government takes away that red tape and makes it easier and stops random refusals and so on, it’s going to remain difficult.”
“What needs to change is that level of exploitation by elected members that somehow think xenophobia is an election platform. That needs to change,” she added.