Canada’s lukewarm response to the refugee crisis


Canada’s lukewarm response to the refugee crisis
Canada’s lukewarm response to the refugee crisis


Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan



The Canadian people, including opposition parties, provincial regimes, mayors, religious organizations and others are prodding the federal government to open the doors to Syrians seeking safety. The latest opinion poll suggests that support for the Conservative government is dropping, partly because of its lukewarm response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Canada had agreed to accept a comparatively small number of Syrian refugees at a leisurely pace. Canada has a mixed record of aiding the persecuted. Those refugees who made it to Canada were given a fair chance in the past to explain why they feared persecution, torture or cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. If they could show that there was more than a mere possibility of such persecution, they were generally accepted and allowed to stay. But in the last few years the government has become stricter and more demanding in an effort to drastically reduce the number of people it accepts and the money it has to spend on their upkeep while their claims are processed.

Refugees from Communist countries, Asian-Africans expelled by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and the boat people fleeing from Vietnam have been among the more famous refugees who were welcomed by Canada in the last few decades. Somalis, who made it to Canada, were also generally accepted. So were Afghans and Iranians, though perhaps in fewer numbers. Refugee claimants come to Canada from all parts of the world and Canada was a leader in offering them safety and a chance to rebuild their lives.

Some of this has been changed by 9/11, terrorist or attempted terrorist attacks in Canada and the growing cost of deciding each claim while providing the claimants with living and medical expenses. The Conservative government has been particularly lukewarm toward Muslims. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made several statements saying that he sees Islamists as a major threat to Canada and the rest of the world.

The prime minister has not made a distinction between the handful of Muslims who are extremists and the masses of Muslims who live normal, productive lives and who themselves have been victimized by fanatics. Nor has he acknowledged that it is the policies of some Western countries that have rained death, destruction and ethnic cleansing on innocent Muslims and that some of the terrorist attacks are a response, however wrong, to such Western actions.

Grudgingly, the Conservative government, which has accepted about a thousand Syrian refugees so far, agreed to take an additional 10,000 refugees in the years to come in addition to the 10,000 it has volunteered to accept.

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, who has called for an immediate meeting of all major Canadian political parties to frame a proper policy, has stated that Canada should accept 25,000 Syrians this year alone. New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair has stated that he will accept refugees in greater numbers in the years to come. All indications are that the Canadian people want their government to be more generous in welcoming refugees.

Like people in Europe and elsewhere, the Canadian people were horrified by the tragedy of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy, whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. Aylan died, as did his four-year-old brother Ghaleb and their mother Rihana when the rubber boat in which they were fleeing to Greece capsized in the Aegean Sea. Abdullah Kurdi had tried to send his family to safety, but he ended up having to bury them in Kobani in Syria.

Tima Kurdi, the boy’s aunt, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, had sent the family money to leave Syria safely. She had sponsored another brother, a refugee in Germany, to come to Canada and hoped to sponsor Abdullah’s family as well. But Canada rejected the first sponsorship saying the information provided was not complete.

Reflecting the views of many Canadians, NDP leader Tom Mulcair asserted: “It’s just unbearable that we’re doing nothing. Canada has an obligation to act.”

Some European countries, Germany in particular, having first-hand experience of displacement and persecution, have pledged to do all they can to help the refugees find safety. But it is a staggering problem. The five-year-old Syrian civil war has killed at least 250,000 people and has displaced some 11 million. Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq are harboring four million refugees. There is no end in sight to the Syrian civil war and to the Bashar Assad regime’s attacks on its own people. Nor is Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS), another tyrannical regime that is persecuting its own people, close to being ousted from power.

So the number of refugees continues to grow. Western countries will accept a large number of refugees. But they will ultimately be overwhelmed by the sheer number. The only answer would be for the international community to set up a government in Syria that seeks to rebuild the country and to replace Daesh with a regime that respects the human rights of its people. Only then will these people find safety.


— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.