Responding to the global refugee crisis – What can Canada do?

Forced Displacement and Migration, News

Oct. 6, 2015

By Branka Marijan and Sonal Marwah

The crisis in Syria and its spillover effects, such as the flow of refugees, are reminders that conflicts and their consequences are rarely contained to one geographic area of the world. Simply ignoring conflicts does not make them go away. Indeed, as the European governments are discovering it only leads to compounding humanitarian crises. However, it would be a mistake to see the current refugee crisis as solely a European issue to tackle.

Over the last few years, the impacts of the Syrian civil war and spread of the so-called Islamic State have largely been felt by neighbouring countries. Most of the 2.5-million Syrian refugees have sought refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—with Lebanon the most popular choice. This influx of displaced persons to already fragile host states, such as Lebanon, has put pressure on infrastructure and resources, and shrunk access to public services. Furthermore, the Syrian conflict has the potential to spread across the region via existing political and sectarian alliances in neighbouring countries.

Despite such realities, a disproportionate amount of international attention has focused on the smaller number of people who attempt the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Once in Europe, these individuals are crossing into the countries of the Western Balkans, which are themselves still experiencing post-conflict issues, such as unexploded landmines on the border between Croatia and Serbia. Complicating matters further, European Union (EU) member states such as Hungary and Slovenia, which refugees must cross to reach their countries of destination, are closing down their borders. In fact, Hungary has built up its fence on the border with Serbia and closed down most of the border crossings with Serbia and Croatia. As a result, refugees find themselves, as IRIN journalist Dan Nolan put it, “caught between razor wire and a minefield.”

Those that manage to reach northern Europe continue to face an uncertain future. Are they refugees or are they migrants? Refugees are entitled to international legal protection; no such protection exists for economic migrants. Distinguishing between the two groups is difficult and problematic. Economic migrants are seen as being pulled from their country by better employment opportunities, while refugees are pushed from their country by persecution. What binds the two bodies of migration is the thread of chronic insecurity. In many cases, security concerns and acute economic vulnerabilities overlap.

The movement of people show no signs of slowing down. Migrants and refugees, including young children and unaccompanied minors, continue to brave the Mediterranean waters in unworthy sea boats controlled by unscrupulous people smugglers. As of August 2015, an estimated 300,000 refugees and migrants had reached Europe this year, while 2,500 are estimated to have died or gone missing while attempting the journey. In 2014, approximately 3,500 people died or were reported lost in the Mediterranean Sea.

While the recent driver for continued forced displacement is Syria’s bloody civil war, which enters its fifth year with no end in sight, other hot conflict spots should be examined. People are fleeing protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the Muslim Rohingyas continue to roam, stateless; while many are leaving Central America, which, with its armed gangs and an increasingly violent drug trade, has among the highest homicide rates in the world.

The number of the world’s people on the move is on the rise. According to the UNHCR’s 2014 Global Trends Report, one in every 122 persons is either a refugee, is internally displaced, or is seeking asylum.

How can Canada help?

Accepting refugees is an important response, but will not resolve the many global crises. A more comprehensive response is required, which will focus on the drivers of conflict and aim to secure more aid for countries currently hosting the greatest number of refugees.

  1. Accept more refugees:
    Canada can certainly accept more refugees. Of the 11,300 Syrians that the government pledged to take in, it is estimated that approximately 1,106 have arrived in Canada to date. The Harper government has said that it would, if re-elected, accept an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq over the next four years. Given the scale of the current migration crisis, these pledges will need to be increased, both for Syrian refugees and for those fleeing other conflict zones.
  1. Expedite the sponsorship process for families:
    Canada should make it easier for Canadian residents to sponsor family members in conflict zones. Currently, sponsored relatives must provide proof of refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or a foreign state. Lifting this requirement, even temporarily, would eliminate an often insurmountable barrier.Syrians in Turkey, for example, cannot register with UNHCR because Turkey does not consider them refugees, but under “temporary protection.” To reach these people, Canada and other prospective host countries need to set up emergency resettling programs. According to some media reports, Canadian immigration officers are already being mobilized to go to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and countries in Europe.Family members in Canada will then be able to take the necessary legal steps to support their loved ones. According to the 2011 census there are 40,840 Syrians in Canada, many keen to reunite with family members in peril. International outrage sparked over the tragic death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach; news that his aunt had attempted to bring the young boy and his family to Canada, but had faced a bureaucratic maze, laid at least some responsibility on Canada’s doorstep.Community organizations and voluntary groups also play a role in sponsoring refugees and are interested in continuing such assistance. But such groups have in the past expressed dismay with the restrictions imposed by the government, such as the number of applications groups can submit. Changes are needed at this end of the process as well.
  1. Address the drivers of the current migration crisis:
    The reasons for the current migration crises are complex. But effective responses are possible.  Canada can contribute to an international response by, for example, taking the lead in diplomatic talks in the case of on-going conflicts. In other fragile societies, Canada can support upstream conflict prevention—a long term approach focused on root causes of conflict and instability.
  1. Increase aid and support to host countries in need:
    The scale of forced displacement urgently requires a coordinated and united humanitarian response. The responsibility to respond to the migration crisis and, more specifically, to the Syrian emergency does not fall on Europe alone or on Syria’s neighbours.In the short term, Canada can increase aid and support to the countries hosting the most refugees, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey In addition, financial aid to humanitarian organizations operating in the region, such as UNHCR and World Food Program (WFP), is critically required. With dwindling resources these organizations could be forced to shut down programs. As the situation in camps worsens, more refugees feel compelled to undertake the dangerous sea journey to Europe, further exposing them to people smugglers and human traffickers.During tough economic times, assisting and accepting more refugees polarizes political debate in industrialized nations, including Canada. Not only are these countries reluctant to resettle refugees, but few have fully met their aid commitments to international humanitarian organizations—the only lifeline for millions of refugees.Most countries have remained on the sidelines and are tempted to remain there. However, as the death of Alan Kurdi reminded the world, such a response has a significant human cost.
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