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Canada Can Do More To Advance Refugee Rights And Protection

12/17/2015 03:03 EST | Updated 12/17/2016 05:12 EST

We have come far over the past year when it comes to refugee protection in Canada. It is heartening and encouraging. Yet our very necessary challenge for 2016 is to go further. We must shore up and build on the sympathy and compassion for Syrian refugees that Canadians have displayed in such abundance. And we must reverse the punitive reforms that have dominated Canadian refugee policy in recent years.

This time last year Amnesty International had just released a report slamming the international community for its miserly response to the Syrian refugee crisis. That certainly extended to Canada. A dismal pledge from the middle of 2013 to resettle 1300 Syrians to Canada had been far too little at the time and had become abysmally inadequate as the crisis deepened.

Protecting Syrian refugees suddenly became an election issue.

That all changed when the photograph of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, face down on a Turkish beach, swept around the world. And hearts burst. That was all the more so in Canada when we learned that Alan's family had a Canadian connection and that instead of a cruel watery grave in the Mediterranean there might have been safety for them here.

Protecting Syrian refugees suddenly became an election issue. And now Canadians across the country take pride in the new government's pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in the next few months. It has truly become a shared national project that recognizes both that Syrians need the protection Canada offers and that Canada needs the skills and determination that Syrian refugees bring.

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Also this time last year Amnesty International was preparing legal arguments readying to intervene in the previous government's appeal of a Federal Court decision that had overturned cuts to essential health-care coverage for certain groups of refugees and refugee claimants. The Minister of Immigration at the time had insisted cutting health care was necessary to ensure 'bogus' refugee claimants didn't come to Canada. The Federal Court unequivocally disagreed and ruled that it was cruel and unusual treatment in clear violation of the Charter of Rights.

That all changed this week. The new government announced that it was abandoning the appeal and would let the Federal Court ruling stand. Amnesty International's lawyers won't be heading to court. Details of a new health-care program for refugees and refugee claimants are to follow.

It is encouraging, of that there is no doubt.

A year ago the first words that came to mind in connection with Canadian refugee policy were restrictions, limitations and exclusion. Today it might instead be generosity, rights and compassion.

But it doesn't and absolutely cannot end with 25,000 Syrian refugees arriving by spring and doctors being once again allowed to provide necessary treatment to refugees and refugee claimants.

The largest refugee crisis the world has seen since the end of the Second World War shows no sign of ending soon.

One need not look far these days on websites, twitter feeds and promotional materials for the words, hashtags and sentiment that refugees are welcome. The coming year offers an unprecedented opportunity to build on that awareness and concern and truly advance a strong Canadian agenda for refugee rights and protection.

First, a fuller, sustained response to the Syrian crisis is needed. As a priority that must include taking steps to ensure speedy reunification of separated Syrian families, particularly for those Syrians in Canada who fear for the safety and well-being of loved ones still trapped inside Syria itself. It also means not stopping with this first wave of 25,000 Syrian refugees and putting in place commitments and resources for further resettlement through to at least the end of 2017. The largest refugee crisis the world has seen since the end of the Second World War shows no sign of ending soon.

And Canada should take up the glaringly vacant role of leading a coherent global response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Europe is divided and bickering. Fearmongering and racism have crept into the U.S. debate about Syrian refugees. Wealthy Middle Eastern states do not, by any measure, do their part. In a speech about refugees and migrants this week the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights began by commending Canada for our recent generosity and openness and contrasted that to the ugly and hurtful attitudes on display in so many other countries. We should not just bask in such praise; we should leverage it and press other nations to follow our lead.

Second, we cannot forget the pressing needs of refugees from other parts of the world. The global refugee population has skyrocketed in recent years, in large part because four million Syrians have fled the country. But numbers of refugees have gone up exponentially elsewhere as well, including one million more refugees in sub-Saharan Africa over the past five years.

Canada's commitment to refugee resettlement was due for a reboot long before the Syrian crisis sparked an outpouring of concern.

In May I spent time in an isolated refugee camp in war-torn South Sudan. Close to 100,000 women, men and children have fled there to escape horrifying human rights violations across the border in Sudan; fleeing from one war zone to another. No country is lining up to ensure their safety and respond to their resettlement needs.

Canada's commitment to refugee resettlement was due for a reboot long before the Syrian crisis sparked an outpouring of concern. We have to ensure that extends to refugees from other countries as well.

And third, there are a host of punitive and mean-spirited laws and policies with respect to refugee protection that have been enacted and adopted over the past several years which simply have to be repealed. Restoring the refugee health care cuts and instead putting in place a program that ensure no one in Canada is denied essential health care because of their immigration status (or lack thereof) would be a good start.

But there is much more to follow. That includes restricted access to appeal hearings, discriminatory treatment for refugee claimants from so-called safe countries of origin like Mexico (in the midst of a full-blown human rights crisis), mandatory and indefinite detention provisions, allowing deportations to torture and unfair national security proceedings in immigration cases. UN human rights experts have pointed to the reforms that are needed. It's time to get it done.

Notably 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the "people of Canada" being awarded the UN's Nansen Award, the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize for refugee protection. It was the first and is still the only time that the honour went to an entire nation.

Three decades later the world faces enormous -- in many respects unprecedented - refugee protection challenges. Those challenges are by no means insurmountable. Canada can lead, encourage and contribute to the solutions that are so desperately needed.

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