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.

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