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The refugee crisis: Canada’s role

We’re witnessing the largest movement of displaced people since the end of the Second World War. Canada needs to do more.

By: /
2 September, 2015
Migrants, hoping to cross into Hungary, walk along a railway track outside a village in Serbia. (Reuters)
By: Colin Robertson
Vice President and Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute

They are desperate people taking desperate measures as they flee war, persecution and poverty. They endure abuse, starvation and, for the unlucky, death in their search for asylum.

The numbers are numbing. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 60 million displaced persons are on the move. Each day an additional 42,500 – the equivalent of everyone living in the Northwest Territories – are forced to leave their homes.

The flows, the most since the mass displacements after the Second World War, are global. The number of European migrants increased 51 percent in 2014: through Turkey, the world’s top refugee-hosting country; across the Mediterranean; and within Ukraine.

The number of Asian migrants is up 31 percent, with Iran and Pakistan now in the top four refugee-receiving nations. Displacement in the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa is up 18 percent. Ethiopia has replaced Kenya as the top African host nation. The numbers from the Americas are up 12 percent because of the six million still displaced within Colombia. Refugee claims are up 44 percent in the United States as a result of the increased flow from Central America.

The displaced are labelled variously as aliens, illegals, migrants or refugees.

There are 14.4 million refugees, those defined as having a well-founded fear of persecution, who are protected by international law. Where do they go?

Few countries participate in the UNHCR program that resettles about 100,000 refugees each year. The United States takes the most. Canada has agreed to resettle 14,500 refugees as part of an intake of 285,000 immigrants this year.

During the current election campaign, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper pledged to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq over the next four years, but critics note that it took almost two years to meet our 2013 commitment to settle 1,500 Syrian refugees. Our processing capacity will have to be improved if we are to meet the pledge of 10,000 over the next three years.

Warning that refugee policy alone will not solve the problem, Mr. Harper says we must stop the Islamic State. “Left to its own devices,” he argues, “ISIS will create millions, tens of millions, of refugees and victims on a monthly basis.”

The military is part of the solution, not just in battling ISIS, but as first responders on land and sea and as peacekeepers. The policy mix must also include diplomacy and development assistance, with more and swifter resettlement.

Describing the arrival of the displaced as a “gigantic challenge” for the European Union, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged “no tolerance for those people who question the dignity of others.” It is a subtle rebuke to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who described the displaced in Calais as a “swarm.”

For David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who heads the International Rescue Committee, the solution requires attention both upstream and downstream.

Upstream, the military must contain the conflict, with humanitarian relief for the displaced, while diplomacy works to resolve the conflict.

Downstream, the challenge is to share the burden. This means quickly determining who is a bona fide refugee rather than economic migrant. It requires police and intelligence collaboration to curb the human traffickers. The final step is expediting refugee resettlement and integration into new homes and the eventual return of migrants to their own lands once peaceful conditions are restored.

Failure to address the upstream will overwhelm the downstream. As a first step, Miliband says, the international community must help those states on the edges of conflict zones with their growing humanitarian burden.

This means money. Appeals through the UNHCR and other relief agencies face major shortfalls. The Syrian refugee program has received less than a quarter of its $4.53-billion request.

Canada could do more.

The next government should launch an energetic appeal matching private and government giving. Couple it with a similar plan for private and government sponsorship to increase refugee resettlement. Make bureaucracy facilitate, not hinder.

While the federal government must lead, provincial and municipal governments have a role. In the aftermath of the Indochinese boat people crisis, then-mayor of Ottawa Marion Dewar launched Project 4000 in June, 1979, to help resettle 4,000 of the 8,000 refugees Canada had agreed to take. Her initiative galvanized the country. Then-prime minister Joe Clark’s minority government raised Canada’s intake to 50,000. Canada would eventually settle more than 60,000 refugees.

The moral case for saving desperate people fleeing for their lives is clear. So is the realpolitik recognition that inaction only compounds a human tragedy that eventually may wind up on our own shores.

This article was first published in The Globe and Mail.

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