The Syrian refugee crisis has become one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, demanding an immediate global response. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, six million people have been displaced inside the country’s borders. Just under four million more have escaped the violence tearing the country apart – approximately 95% of these individuals are now living in five countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt).Many of these refugees have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea for safety, or in poorly maintained refugee camps. With no sign of an end to the war, the number of refugees and related deaths is bound to increase.
After accepting thousands of refugees, neighboring states are now refusing to take in more Syrians. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now make up a quarter of the population. But, security concerns have now prompted the fragile state to shut its borders to individuals feeling the violence in Syria. In Jordan, Syrian refugees are housed in the Azraq and Za’atari refugee camps. Za’atari is already experiencing overcrowding, and officials have begun forced deportations of Syrian refugees from Jordan.
These problems have been further exacerbated by funding shortages experienced by aid organizations, like the World Food Programme (WFP). The WFP suspended its voucher programs after running out of funds in December 2014. The program provided vital food vouchers to over 1.7 million Syrian refugees.
In September 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, foresaw the refugee crisis and issued an urgent appeal to international states to resettle Syrian refugees. Some states have already begun resettlement initiatives while others have started to create specific resettlement programs. Between Germany and Sweden, approximately 100,000 Syrians have been resettled. Countries including Brazil and the United States have created special humanitarian programs or open-ended visa programs to speed up the resettlement process.
Responding to the crisis, the Canadian government has provided a generous donation of over $630 million in aid. But money can only buy so many blankets, food items, and vaccination shots. The recent WFO suspension shows that aid supplies can provide only temporary relief. What Syrian refugees truly need is a new home.
Repeating his appeal to the international community, Guterres called for the immediate resettlement of 100,000 Syrian refugees at a lecture held in Ottawa, Canada in May 2014.
“There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where people have to risk their lives to seek safety and where at the end of a dangerous journey, they are not welcome or even turned away.”
Canada’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration claims on its website that the country annually resettles one in every ten international refugees. If these figures are accurate, that would mean the government of Stephen Harper should be well on its way toward resettling, at minimum, 10,000 Syrians in Canada. However, as it currently stands, the Canadian government has been silent on resettling Syrians as part of the UNHCR’s 100,000 appeal.
In July 2013, then-Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney committed to resettling only 1,300 Syrians by the end of 2014. Of those 1,300, only 200 were to receive government assistance while private sponsors would be responsible for the remaining 1,100. Kenney’s proposal can in response to Guterres’s September 2013 resettlement appeal. To make matters more confounding, the Harper government has failed to reveal data on the number of Syrians who have actually been resettled as part of Canada’s earlier commitment. The Ottawa Citizen recently published an article stating that the current Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has been aware for months that Canada was nowhere near its target of 1,300. The article further claims that Alexander has known that Canada would be unable to fulfill its commitment to resettle refugees by the end of 2014.
Historically, Canada has shown it can adequately respond to international crises. Under Prime Minister Joe Clark [1979-1980], around two million Vietnamese were resettled after escaping the war in their country. At the time, Clark had built strong partnerships with private sponsors to help facilitate resettlement. More recently, during the Haitian earthquake and the typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Canada launched emergency programs that resulted in the resettlement of both Haitians and Filipinos on Canadian soil.
Canada’s ambiguous response to the Syrian refugee crisis also stands in stark contrast to its reaction to Iraqi refugees. Following the Iraqi civil war, between 2006 and 2007, Canada launched a resettlement program that has thus far seen just under 20,000 Iraqi refugees resettled. A combination of private and government sponsorship has led to a consistent flow of refugees into the country, and has strongly suggested that Canada is capable of heeding the UN’s call to resettle Syrians.
As long as the Syrian civil war continues, an entire generation of Syrians faces an uncertain future. As a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Canada has an international obligation to provide adequate aidduring refugee crises. International NGOs and local groups and organizations have repeatedly called on Canada to demonstrate its commitment to alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis, and resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. In light of Canada’s history of refugee aid, one wonders if the current Harper government believes that ten million displaced Syrians constitute an international emergency worth addressing.