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Canada Should Follow Sweden's Lead on the Syrian Refugee Issue

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The exact number of Syrian refugees resettled to Canada since the start of the civil war in 2011 is unknown to the public. The target was 1,300 resettled by the government or private sponsors. The word "resettled" is key to the numbers debate because this was a Canadian commitment to physically bring Syrians here, instead of helping Syrians who are already here. Earlier this week in the House of Commons, the government reported 1,645 Syrians have arrived in Canada since 2011. Opposition members revised that to just 285 resettled refugees of the promised 1,300, quoting the government's own figures from July. The other 1,360? The majority would have made their way to Canada on their own and are called inland claimants.

If you use the number 285, you may be of the mind that a commitment is more important than total numbers. We promised entry to 1,300 resettled refugees. We delivered entry to 285.

If you use the number 1,645, you may think it really doesn't matter if a Syrian is a resettled refugee or an inland claimant. What matters is that Canada is protecting 1,645 people.

But whether you think 285 or 1,645 is the legitimate answer to the political numbers question, you would be wrong to think the Canadian response is something outstanding. Especially compared to our international peers.

Syria's immediate neighbours, including Iraq which is now deep in a colossal conflict of its own, deserve the highest recognition. Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and others are doing the world's heavy lifting.

But outside the neighbourhood, there is one country leading the response. It is not Canada, despite statements from our ministers that the Canadian refugee response constitutes "more than any of our allies have done." This is deliberately misleading and a slight to what our allies are actually doing.

Greater leadership can be found in a country with a quarter of Canada's population.

At a high-level meeting on immigration with dignitaries in Stockholm earlier this week, Ratna Omidvar of the Global Diversity and Migration Exchange, told them so: "Sweden's commitment to refugees is remarkable, it is steadfast, it is admirable, it is outstanding. You stand up for the most disenfranchised peoples of the world, at significant cost to yourself. People look to you, not to Canada, as the moral guardians for the world."

Just two months after Canada committed to resettle 1,300 Syrians, Sweden announced that any Syrian who arrived at its borders would get permanent residence. Sweden also allowed those Syrians to bring their immediate family. An estimated 30,000 Syrians now have permanent residence in Sweden and thousands more are expected by the end of 2014. The Scandinavian country is the European leader. Over 60 per cent of the 35,800 Syrians protected in the EU in 2013, or 12,000 people, were recorded in Sweden.

How does Sweden sustain support for these numbers, when Swedes are told the costs of supporting Syrians will take a big chunk of an already expensive welfare system? And beyond budgetary stress, the political costs are notable. The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats took their largest share of the Riksdag to date in the September election, rising to third party status. And yet, Sweden stays the course. Why?

Sweden has taken a clear position in a debate among rich and removed countries about what to do. On one side are those like Canada and the United States, which lean towards a position that the immense number of people in need of help are unable to be helped anywhere but on site, and that's where energy should focus. Put differently, a regional crisis needs a regional response. To its credit, Canada has spent a sent a lot of aid money, $630 million, since the start of the crisis. It shows this decision was not taken lightly, and that Canada is willing to back its position with money.

The other side accepts that a regional response is needed, but thinks a comprehensive strategy includes immigration, and on this side are countries like Sweden and Germany. The arguments for immigration are these: First, helping even a small group is potentially saving that small group from death in the unsafe and unhealthy refugee zone circling Syria and Iraq. Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council explained it this way: "Syria is in flames. Lebanon is filled to the brim. People are bleeding to death on both sides of the borders. We need to take more of the people who we cannot help in the region -- including the sick and disabled." If not saving them from death, it is relieving them from a brutally difficult time.

Second, refugees (like skilled immigrants) are an asset to their host countries. This is an articulate argument from leaders in both Sweden and Germany - which accepted the second largest number of Syrians in the EU in 2013. Joachim Gauck, the spirited German president, calls for even higher numbers to Germany. He's had to counter perceptions of refugees as a burden, explaining "that many who are forced into inaction suffer for not being allowed to work their way up to a better life. The vast majority of them have no desire to live on handouts." Instead, they are "highly mobile, flexible, multilingual, and willing to tackle difficulties and risks."

A third argument is in a different sphere than human lives and human capital. It's about foreign policy interest. A refusal to afford Syrians the same care shown to past refugees from Vietnam, Chile, the Balkans, and many more, sends a chill over relations with the region. It is noted that Syrians and Iraqis are mostly Muslims, and that Islamic extremism among the refugees is a major Western concern. But it is hard to assess how legitimate these security concerns are -- in Canada, there is little daylight on the process of security checks. It is not public exactly what makes overseas refugee processing times range from two to five years. We can only guess at the intelligence resources poured into assessing each refugee, let alone what is uncovered. But even legitimate security concerns do not legitimize a policy of one-sided engagement, where Canada engages over there, but does not substantially offer its own space as part of the solution.

As a new military mission in Iraq is underway, Canada is leaning towards one-sided engagement with the region. But it's still early. This is a window to rethink and learn from our allies' leadership on refugees. Will we follow?

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