By Valerie Percival
The Syrian crisis is no longer contained. Millions of refugees have fled into neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands are walking miles across Europe in search of safety and compassion. Yet the world seems paralyzed – incapable of a coordinated response.
Canada shares in that paralysis. The recent announcement from the government recognizing Syrians as “prima facie” refugees, appointing a senior coordinator and scaling up immigration staff is welcome. Yet the government changed its policies begrudgingly, with a cap of just 10,000 refugees by the end of the year and 46,000 by 2019. Their talking points remain constant, reminding Canadians that an influx of tens of thousands of refugees from Syria could undermine Canada’s security and way of life.
Such a parochial approach is inconsistent with the facts. Canada is a rich country. We are also a nation of migrants. Refugees fleeing war and oppression have long contributed to Canada’s material wealth, social capital and promise. And Canada’s security has always been best served by extending a hand to those in need.
However, critics of Canada’s response have also had a narrow focus — why and how to accept refugees. Canadian efforts to engage in the Syrian refugee crisis must be part of a comprehensive diplomatic strategy that addresses the causes and consequences of refugee flows from Syria and other countries in the region. Canada needs to employ a three-pronged approach: global advocacy to encourage countries to share the refugee burden; resettlement of our share of refugees, and efforts to end the war in Syria.
According to UNHCR, an estimated two million Syrian refugees are displaced in Turkey, over one million in Lebanon, 600,000 in Jordan, and 250,000 in Iraq. Inside Syria, over seven million have been affected by war and are living in desperate circumstances.
The mass movement of refugees is overwhelming an already unstable region. Neighbouring countries fear the influx of people will disrupt delicate sectarian balances and provoke unrest. International assistance has slowed to a trickle – the Syrian Regional Refugee Response Plan is only 41 percent funded for 2015. Aid dwindles, jobs are scarce, social services are minimal, and yet the war rages in Syria. With little hope that they can return home, people are on the move. Over 430,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe, with no sign of the flow of people stopping.
Despite the magnitude of the crisis, international leadership is sorely lacking. The European Union (EU) is badly divided, the United Nation’s (UN) pleas go unanswered, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is silent, and the G7 is waiting for Japan to assume presidency from Germany in 2016.
In this context, Canada has the opportunity to undertake the following:
- Acknowledge the strain caused by the mass movement of people and signal our support to the EU, the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in their efforts to address the refugee crisis.Propose that Germany (as G7 president for 2015) hold an emergency meeting of the G7 foreign ministers to galvanize a coordinated international response to the refugee crisis, namely an international burden-sharing program to temporarily shelter, or permanently resettle, refugees from Syria. The conference would enable G7 members to develop reiterate their commitment to international law regarding refugees, and expand their financial support to receiving countries and international organizations. This would be in addition to the EU’s emergency meeting to be held this week in Brussels, and would drive home the international nature of the crisis.
- Undertake demarches to receiving states to encourage them to uphold their rights and responsibilities towards refugees and treat migrants with dignity and respect. Under international law, refugees must be protected against refoulement — forceful return to their country as long as their freedom and safety are at risk. Refugees should also be provided with basic shelter, healthcare, the right to work, and freedom of movement.
- Discuss with affected countries how Canada can support the safe reception and speedy registration of refugees and migrants, with both financial and in-kind support (deployments of experts) to receiving countries and international organizations to facilitate this registration. Support the proposal for a donor conference on the refugee crisis, perhaps through the auspices of the OSCE. As part of this conference, Canada could propose that the IOM and OSCE work together to develop a plan to address the flow of economic migrants.
As part of our efforts to promote this internationally coordinated program, Canada can and should take more refugees from the region, and undertake the following:
- Launch a fully-fledged program to temporarily host refugees, with options for permanent resettlement, supported by reputable non-governmental organizations working in Canada and in the region. To dissuade individuals from undertaking the perilous journey to Europe, registration for the program should take place in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as key European cities.
- Mobilize teams of immigration officers, supported by non-governmental organizations, to facilitate the processing of large numbers of refugee claims in the region. Use of retired immigration officers, as suggested by media reports, will bring much needed experience to the process. Canada could explore the feasibility of utilizing mobile teams in receiving countries, and ensure coordination with like-minded countries.
- Mobilize teams of trained security personnel to undertake rapid security screening. While such checks are important, they cannot be an excuse for delays. Retired Canadian military personnel could potentially be mobilized to speed up security screening.
- Prioritize vulnerable refugees as well as family reunification, and ensure Canada’s program has a broad definition of the “family” to ensure that grandparents as well as older adolescents and young adults are not left behind.
- Galvanize Canadian communities to both sponsor refugees and support their arrival.
- Ensure safe transportation to Canada with appropriate medical screening and support. The Canadian government, in the wake of poorly executed mass evacuations in Lebanon and Libya, may not be the best choice for this task, but non-governmental organizations could fill this void.
3. Focus on Syria
Canada has become a marginal diplomatic player in the Middle East. Our political positions on Israel, Palestine, dialogue with Iran and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as Canada’s blind faith in the power of military strikes on ISIS have undermined our credibility and minimized opportunities for constructive Canadian engagement in the Syrian crisis.
The situation is dire. Stephen O’Brien, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, recently stated: “We are running out of words to describe the utter disregard for human life and dignity that has become the hallmark of this crisis.” While recognizing our current limitations, Canada should advocate for the needs of war-affected populations (especially those still in Syria) and undertake the following:
- Increase financial assistance to humanitarian organizations to enable them to alleviate suffering and provide food, water, healthcare and shelter within Syria.
- Advocate for the principles of humanitarian neutrality and impartiality, ensuring that military and humanitarian objectives are not intertwined.
- Recognize that the military campaign against ISIS is not working to defeat ISIS; any military tactics must be couched within a coordinated diplomatic and political strategy.
- Support non-governmental organizations to document crimes against humanity in Syria and the region.
- Advocate that the primary objective of an international strategy on Syria must be to end violence; although Canada can advocate for a gradual transition to a democratic and accountable government, opinions on the suitability of Bashir al Assad to continue as President in the short-term may impede efforts to stop the violence.
- Support the creation of an International Contact Group on Syria, including the active involvement of Russia in that group.
The massive movement of desperate refugees into Europe is an international crisis – and merits an international response. But it cannot solely focus on housing refugees. It must also address the failure of many states to uphold their responsibilities to refugees under international law, as well as the war that is driving refugee movements. Countries like Canada need to push for this comprehensive approach.
Much of Canada’s diplomatic muscle has atrophied in recent years. The Syrian crisis provides Canada with an opportunity to take back its position as a leader in international diplomacy, rather than a free-rider. Canada can also regain lost moral ground as a global advocate for war affected populations. But if the talking points of the Harper government are any indication, Canada may have to wait until the results of the October 19 election for such leadership to manifest itself.