Sunday 27 March 2016

Syrian Refugees in Canada: Ethical Dilemmas

Syrian refugees in Canada: Ethical Dilemmas

The other day I watched a television interview with a Syrian refugee stranded in Greece as a result of Macedonia’s closing of its borders.  He was a man in his late 30s or early 40s; he spoke good English and he was very angry.  He told the interviewer that his five-year-old daughter and his wife had both been killed in the war.  He asked why Western countries would not help him, specifically mentioning Canada.

Since Canada’s new Liberal government took power in November 2015, Canada has been engaged in a self-congratulatory love-fest about its acceptance of 25,000 Syrian refugees (and counting), fulfilling a promise the Liberals made before they took power.  Some of them have been directly financed by the government, which provides them with enough money to live for one year at local welfare rates. Others are financed by private Canadian citizens, groups of people who get together to raise funds and provide support of various kinds. Both sets of Syrian refugees are also given immediate permanent residence status and health care. It costs about $Can30,000 to sponsor a family of four for one year; for each extra person, you have to budget about $Can7,500. 
John McCallum,
Canada's Minister of Immigration

The newspapers are full of pictures of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Immigration greeting arriving Syrians. There are heart-warming stories of Vietnamese-Canadians, whose families were sponsored as refugees in the 1970s, now sponsoring Syrians. Other heart-warming stories feature Jewish and Muslim Canadians working together to sponsor refugees.
I am glad that Canada is accepting so many Syrians, but the man I watched on television the other night won’t be one of them. Like everyone else, Canadians are worried about security risks.  One way to lessen them, the government has decided, is to accept only complete families or vulnerable people, such as mothers and children. Gay men are also acceptable as they are considered—and probably are—extremely vulnerable in macho Middle Eastern cultures. But single men, such as the Syrian man I watched on television, widowed and childless as a result of the war, are not.   
I am part of a group sponsoring one Syrian family: we are waiting for it to be cleared for immigration at the moment. Our group has raised $40,000. My husband contributed to his church’s fund; they have raised another $40,000 for a family that has already arrived. Across the street from my husband’s church, yet another church is sponsoring another family, probably raising about the same amount. And the synagogue group down the street has raised about $60,000 for a large family.
So between these four groups, people of my acquaintance have raised $180.000. But what else could have been done with this money?  People still in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon are without heat, without schools, without enough food.  How far would the $180,000 these four groups have raised go toward shelter, schools, or food, if we’d given it to UNICEF instead?
There’s also the problem that Canada is discriminating in favour of Syrians and against other refugee groups. Appallingly, the Canadian government forces refugees to pay for their own transportation costs to this country. Once they get here they have to agree to pay back the loan; even with low interest rates, that’s a considerable burden for people who’ve just arrived, have to find work, and often can’t speak the language. Recently Canada has decided to waive the fee for Syrians but not for other refugees.
Then there’s the decision to have a massive airlift of refugees from Syria but not from other countries. As Kamal Al-Solaylee, a Yemeni-Canadian whose autobiography I reviewed on this blog on  January 18, 2103 (;postID=3825731743685667926;onPublishedMenu=posts;onClosedMenu=posts;postNum=71;src=postname)  has pointed out, 2.3 million Yemenis are internally displaced and 1.3 million children are at risk of malnutrition (out of a population of 26.5 million). (See Al-Solaylee’s article, “Suffering’s Second Act, in the Canadian magazine The Walrus, March 2016  And then there are the South Sudanese, suffering malnutrition, displacement, murder, torture and rape at the hands of their feuding leaders, who brought them independence from Sudan proper in 2011 only to fight among themselves. 
Europeans are doing the same thing. Syrians are acceptable as refugees en masse, but other groups aren’t. But to deny individuals refugee status merely because they come from the “wrong” country, or from countries where there is not a horrible civil war at present, is against international law. Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, receiving countries have to assess whether as individuals, potential refugees have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Article 1, A, 2). You can’t just exclude individuals when they come from the wrong country.
But how do you assess the millions of people flocking to Europe at the moment not only from Syria and Afghanistan, but also from North Africa, sub-Sahara Africa, and Pakistan? Even if Canada, with a population of about 35 million people, eventually doubles its own intake to 50,000, it won’t have taken in proportionately near as many refugees as Germany, which with a population of 80 million, has now accepted over 1.1 million refugees. Germany is taking ten times as many.
And then there’s bureaucracy. A 16-year-old Syrian male (legally a child, under Canadian law) was recently detained in solitary confinement for several weeks by the Canadian Border Services Agency. His crime was entering Canada from  Buffalo in the United States, with which we have a Safe Third-Country Agreement, which means that he should have claimed refugee status there. His parents had heard about Canada’s plan to accept Syrians and given him instructions about how to go to Canada. Fortunately activists and the press got wind of this young man’s situation, and he has been released from detention. (see (. But one wonder how many other Syrians—or other young people who are legally children—find themselves in the same situation.
I don’t know the answers to all these questions, but they worry me.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

What (U.S.) Women Owe Women: Vote Bernie Sanders

What (U.S.) Women Owe Women: Vote Bernie Sanders

Last week (February 25-27, 2016) I attended an academic workshop in the US. One day I was chatting with another woman participant about the responsibility of raising children while working as a scholar. The mother of a four-year-old, she worked in a US university. When her child was born she received exactly six weeks’ paid maternity leave, the minimum time considered necessary for her to physically recover from giving birth. By contrast, paid maternity leave (actually parental leave, because parents can share it) in Canada is now a year and in Sweden it is about 17 months. Not that Canada is paradise (I don’t know about Sweden): you don’t get this leave unless you have a steady salaried job. Many people don’t;  instead, they are paid by the hour or run small businesses of their own.

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Madeline Albright
I mention this because a while ago there was a furor in the newspapers about a couple of comments made by two prominent older women who support Hillary Clinton’s campaign to be the Democratic nominee for President. Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support help each other”: she meant that women voters should support Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. Gloria Steinem, the famous American feminist now in her 80s, suggested that young women were voting for Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, because that was where the boys were.

But if women really want to support other women, then they should vote for Bernie Sanders.  He is the one who is talking about abysmally low minimum wages.  He is the one who is talking about excessive (to put it mildly) student debt dogging Americans well into their adulthood.  He is the one talking about mass incarceration of (mainly male) African-Americans, without whom boy children lack role models and many women lack partners to help support themselves and their families. He’s the one who wants the serious immigration reform necessary so that “mixed-status” Hispanic-American families can begin to feel secure.

Americans (women and men) suffer not only from extreme income inequality and lack of secure, well-paying jobs (which is also affecting much of the rest of the Western world, including Canada) but also from a strong libertarian tradition that forces people to rely on themselves and does not accept collective social responsibility for children, much less for adults.  Women suffer from this tradition not only as women, but as mothers and as partners of other people, male and female. Sanders  is a democratic socialist; he understands how social structure and economic exploitation affect most people’s lives.   

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Susan Faludi
I admire Hillary Clinton and I think she will probably win the Democratic primaries: I hope for the sake of Americans and the rest of the world that she also wins the election. But I also hope that Bernie Sanders pushes her to the left. Susan Faludi, the author of “Backlash”, is probably right that Sanders would be beaten by a Republican candidate, so all his promised reforms would be for naught, whereas Clinton might be able to accomplish something worthwhile.  But Faludi is wrong to suggest that what’s going on is younger women’s rebellion against their old-school feminist mothers.  There’s a lot more at stake, and I think these young women know that. 

It’s about policy, not just identity. Maureen Dowd says that “young women supporting Sanders are living the feminist dream, where gender no longer restricts and defines your choices, where girls grow up knowing they can be anything they want.”  
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Maureen Dowd
This is nonsense. Neither boys nor girls can be anything they want in a society that does not provide the social supports that are common in the rest of the developed Western world, however undermined recently by economic stringency. If you are a girl from a wealthy family you probably have as much opportunity nowadays as a boy from the same family. But in the US today neither young women nor young men can look forward to being parents, to establishing stable families, to a life with adequate rest and leisure, to assurance that illness will not plunge them into poverty.

No one should support Hillary Clinton just because she is a woman; if Madeline Albright really cared about women, she’d be pressuring Clinton to adopt some of Sanders’ policies. As for Steinem, she ought to be ashamed of herself. During the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, one thing we women protested against was the assumption that we could not think for ourselves.

Young American women also think, and what many of them think is that they are facing very insecure futures in which they may never have a steady job, never succeed in paying off their student debt, never be able to afford their own home and never—in a country without a national day care system, universal parental leave, or even secure post-Obama medical care-- be able to have the children many would like to have.  And young American men, with many of the same concerns, think the same thing.