Lorne Waldman and Lobat Sadrehashemi (The Toronto Star):
Children are washing up lifeless on beaches and Canada has turned its back. This Syrian refugee crisis is one of the worst humanitarian tragedies in recent memory and our government has utterly failed to respond in any meaningful way. While other countries have stepped up to resettle Syrian refugees caught in a war zone and humanitarian crisis, the Conservative government has taken little action.
The photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old child tragically found drowned and washed up on a beach in Turkey, brought the story home to all Canadians. Their aunt tearfully recounted her last conversation with the boys. Days later, with their mother and father, they climbed into a boat out of desperation. Alan and his five-year-old brother, Ghalib, and their mother, Rehanna, died along with others when their boats capsized.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has evaded questions about the government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis for months, and the government has refused to respond quickly enough to the urgent request of the United Nations to assist in resettling Syrian refugees. Now Alexander has suspended his re-election campaign to get briefings so he can focus on the crisis. This comes a day after his shameful performance on national television in which he tried to deflect questions about his government’s inaction in the face of the crisis. Many may wonder why he waited until now to get a briefing when the UNHCR has been pleading for over a year for a significant Canadian commitment to resettle refugees.
The failure to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis is part of a broader failure of this government’s approach to welcoming refugees to Canada. With the cuts to refugee health care and their amendments to the refugee law, the government has gone to great lengths to discourage asylum seekers from coming to Canada. Two of their pillars of refugee reform have been found by the courts to have violated the constitutional rights of refugees — cuts to refugee health care were found to be “cruel and unusual” treatment, and barring groups of refugees from accessing appeal rights was found to be discriminatory.
There is a meanness and incompetence to Canada’s refugee and immigration policies that we have never seen in previous governments, no matter which party held office. It is unprecedented for the Canadian government to do so little in the face of such a grave disaster. With the Kosovars our government acted quickly, resettling 5,000 refugees in a few months. Canada resettled approximately 60,000 Vietnamese refugees in two years in the late 70s. In the late 1950s, a Canada with less than half our current population resettled 35,000 Hungarians fleeing their home country in one year — more than 10 per cent of all Hungarian refugees at the time.
This government has said it would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years. To put this into perspective, there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees in the neighbouring countries. Stephen Harper has said that “we are doing everything” to respond to this crisis. How can this be true? How can the government justify such a pathetic response to this grave humanitarian crisis?
Today the processing of an application to resettle a Syrian refugee can take 18 months or longer. No government official has explained why the processing of Syrian refugees has bogged down. Immigration lawyers have desperate Canadian family members come to their offices begging for help. They know their family members’ lives are on the line and they can do nothing.
As concerned Canadians our hands are tied. Our government has taken no measures to expedite their applications to Canada. Right now, if Canadians try to sponsor a Syrian refugee from Lebanon or Jordan, the file will sit on a visa officer’s desk in Beirut for about 12 months before the refugee will even be interviewed. Are we seriously to believe that the federal government cannot do better in an emergency?
This Conservative government is now failing both the international community and desperate families like the Kurdi family with its tepid response to the Syrian crisis. As other countries scramble to respond in this unprecedented time of need, Canada’s government continues to flout our moral and legal duty to protect refugees. We can and must do better. Maybe it will take a change in government for this to happen.