Syrian Refugees: Canada Must Act

by Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada
Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexNeveAmnesty


Canada’s commitment to resettling refugees has been modest and processing rates painfully slow. Remind the Prime Minister and all party leaders that Canadians welcome refugees.

At long last – anguished by the heartbreaking photo of little Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach and challenged by the images of thousands of refugees desperately and determinedly clashing with police along the Greek/Macedonian border or setting off on foot from Budapest’s train station to reach Germany – the world gets it.

We have long talked of the Syrian refugee crisis. We have talked of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. We have talked of the European refugee crisis.

We have talked of the responsibilities borne by Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – Syria’s neighbours – now sheltering 4 million Syrian refugees, 2 million in Turkey alone.  The numbers are so high in tiny Lebanon that 1 out of 5 people in the country are now Syrian refugees.

We have long talked of the challenges faced by Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

But it was not until the tragedy of Alan Kurdi’s senseless, pointless and so avoidable death on the Mediterranean’s cruel high seas last week – and then the agonizing realization that his family had a Canadian connection and his uncle had tried, unsuccessfully, to come to Canada for safety – that our understanding at long last shifted.

It was not until that moment that finally – across the country, our leaders, our premiers, our mayors, our neighbours – we all finally understood, accepted and agreed.

This is not a Syrian crisis, a Jordanian/Lebanese/Turkish crisis.  It is not an Italian/Greek/Hungarian crisis. Nor is it a European crisis. It is, of course, all of those things; very desperately so.

But above all else it is a global refugee crisis. And a global crisis means global responsibility and global solutions. And that includes Canada.

This global crisis calls us, as Canadians, to act for so many reasons:

  • because of our commitments as a nation to human rights and humanitarian causes;
  • because of our wealth and good fortune as a nation;
  • because of our Syrian friends, neighbours and co-workers who already live with and among us across the country and worry about the safety of relatives left behind;
  • because of our abilities, capacities and resources as a nation that has so often resettled large numbers of refugees in the past; andsimply because it is the necessary and right thing to do.

Over the past week there has been much debate about numbers.  Commentators have pointed to disappointing past commitments; levels which Amnesty International has long said were too low.  There have been recollections about what we’ve done in the past, such as at the time of the Vietnamese refugee crisis over 35 years ago.  And there have been shameful comparisons to what other nations are doing now.

But those really are not the important questions we need to answer right now.

The crucial questions in front of us now are what is the need, what are we capable of and how do we make sure it happens.

The Syrian crisis is unlike any refugee situation we have faced in generations.  Our contribution must therefore be unlike anything we have mustered in generations.

And we need to be thinking in that immediate time frame: now.  This is not about what we will do over 2, 3 or 4 years.  It is what we must and what we will do now.

Here are 8 key steps that point the way forward.

  1. Amnesty International has called for an immediate commitment to resettle a minimum of 10,000 Syrians through government sponsorship – not spread out over several years – but now.  That means ensuring that they will arrive in Canada before the end of this year.  That needs to be followed up with similar generous sustained commitments over the years to come.
  2. We need to expedite family resettlement.    That option should have offered safety for Alan Kurdi and his extended family.  It failed.  Families should be reunited immediately with the paperwork and processing happening once relatives are safely here in Canada.
  3. Private sponsorship of Syrian refugees – the impulse for which has erupted so naturally and generously across the country – needs to be well supported and the many barriers that slow it down have to be lifted.
  4. There needs to be a dramatic increase in the levels of financial, human and logistical resources that are so needed to ensure speedy processing – not the agonizingly protracted processing of refugee applications that is today’s reality.  There are nowhere near enough resources even for the numbers currently being processed. There has to be a significant and immediate boost.  Otherwise, no matter the commitments, no matter the aspiration – this will all be an illusion.
  5. Doing more to assist Syrian refugees cannot come at the expense of other refugees from other parts of the world.  Our commitment to refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in other countries must continue.
  6. Canada has been generous in providing funding to UN and humanitarian agencies working with refugees and IDPs on the ground in Syria and neighbouring countries.  But still those needs remain dramatically underfunded.  Just last week there was news that the Word Food Programme was curtailing food distribution to over 200,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan because of funding shortfalls.  Canada should keep writing those cheques and pushing and encouraging other nations to do similarly.
  7. Alongside these moves Canada can and should intensify its efforts to find a resolution to the crisis in Syria that has provoked such massive displacement.   One place to start would be to work for a comprehensive global arms embargo against Syria.
  8. Finally, we need coordination, political will and leadership.  Offers and ideas are pouring in from individual Canadians, community initiatives, church groups, mayors and premiers.  We have heard expressions of sorrow and concern from the Minister and the Prime Minister but we have yet to see anything from government that is new and different. There is no sense of how the generosity that is flooding in from across the country at local levels will come together, no confidence yet that it will be matched by decisive federal level action and no idea of how it will transform into an effective plan.

The need for leadership is urgent.

Canada’s response to the Syrian refugees crisis must be both immediate and sustained.  It must offer much more generous government sponsorship beginning with 10,000 refugees resettled to Canada by year’s end and building from there.  Barriers to private sponsorship must be lifted and families reunited.  Resources must be put in place.  There has to be bold, visionary leadership to make it all happen.

That is what we owe to Alan Kurdi, his family and the countless other Alan Kurdis who need and deserve safety.  And we owe it now.

Further Reading