(This editorial will be published in the October issue of the Anglican Journal.)
In 1986, the United Nations awarded the people of Canada the Nansen Medal, its highest distinction for aid to refugees, for their “major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees in their country and throughout the world for years.”
The honour came, in large measure, because of a national campaign that saw more than 60,000 Indochinese refugees resettled to Canada between 1979 and 1980. Public pressure had forced Ottawa to increase its initial commitment to help resettle the 1.5 million “boat people” who fled Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Canadians-including churches and faith groups-opened their doors to 34,000 Vietnamese refugees under the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.
Today, the world is witnessing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). At the end of 2013, there were 51 million refugees, half of them children.
The numbers exploded in 2015. Each day, thousands are fleeing the cauldron of conflicts in Syria, Eritrea, South Sudan and Afghanistan and are boarding shoddy boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of finding peace in Europe. Others are embarking on long, perilous journeys by foot or via cargo trucks operated by human traffickers. Of the more than 300,000 who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year, nearly 2,700 have died. Most drowned when their overloaded boats capsized; others suffocated in overcrowded trucks. (The “lucky ones” who made it ashore face uncertain futures in host nations that have seen a rise in xenophobic attacks.)
On September 2, the heartbreaking image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on the Turkish shore, brought home the full horror of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Europe. Alan was one of at least 12 Syrians who drowned while attempting to reach Greece.
Rich nations, including Canada, have behaved apathetically. As European Union leaders argued over “sharing the responsibility” (except Angela Merkel, who has opened Germany’s doors to 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015), all Canada could commit to was welcoming 10,000 more refugees fleeing ISIS and the Syrian war, over a four-year period (2017-2020). That is, if the Conservatives get re-elected, according to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.
What Harper has failed to mention is that the new plan would again hinge on private sponsorships. Of the 2,500 Syrian refugees resettled in Canada since 2013, 1,600 were private sponsorships. In January, the government pledged to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years, of which it unilaterally decided that 60 per cent (6,000) would be private sponsorships. So far, 1,300 refugees have been processed: only 200 were government-sponsored.
Driven by a moral obligation-and for Christians, a biblical imperative-to care for the vulnerable, many Canadians continue to sponsor refugees and support emergency relief for those in refugee camps. Fourteen Anglican dioceses are Sponsorship Agreement Holders, and one-the diocese of Niagara-is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year by launching an initiative to sponsor 50 refugees.
But Ottawa also needs to show leadership by upholding a principle outlined in the sponsorship program that privately sponsored refugees are over and above, and not in place of, government-assisted refugees. It needs to address the backlog and delays in the processing of applications. And it needs to be fair. Ottawa’s plan to sponsor refugees prioritizes “persecuted ethnic and religious minorities,” which critics say is a euphemism for Christians and Yazidis. Yet, a vast majority of the four million Syrians who have been displaced by the civil war are Sunni Muslims. Not only does this discriminatory approach contravene the 1951 Refugee Convention, it makes a mockery of Canada’s humanitarian tradition.
The settlement of conflicts bedeviling the world today remains the ultimate goal. But until this is achieved, Canada and the world should not turn their backs on those who desperately need help.