THE BLOG

Canada Must Do More To Help Syrians Abroad

12/06/2014 12:33 EST | Updated 02/04/2015 05:59 EST

The temperature this week in Şanlıurfa, a city on the southern border in eastern Turkey where new refugees from Syria stream in daily, dropped to just above zero. This is the fourth winter of the Syrian crisis, and falling temperature is not really news. The cold might even matter less than the heat. Even farther north in Istanbul, most days of August 2014 hit highs above 30 degrees. In Şanlıurfa, summer days hovered near 40.

The weather is not changing. What is changing, growing each year and each day, is the number of Syrians inside Turkey. The influx slowed in recent months because of controls in Syria and at its borders, and still, 130,000 people entered Turkey within a few days in September. The latest total is 1.6 million. That's the population of Montreal, strewn across Turkey from the south-eastern border with Syria. Refugees are clustered in the border provinces, in towns and in some 22 government-built refugee camps, but many have reached Turkey's western cities as far as Istanbul. An estimated 86 per cent (1.38 million) live outside of camps.

They are not doing well. In a report released last week, Amnesty International documents the lives of refugees outside Turkey's camps, people who are just getting by. The 64-page report details incidents of violence at the border by Turkish guards against Syrians, ongoing confusion about rights and which services refugees can access (by refugees themselves and by public officials), lack of any rent or food assistance outside camps, homelessness, overcrowded and dirty housing, the inability to find authorized or well-paid work, and the list goes on.

Criticism of Turkey's dealing with Syrians inside its borders comes with the important caveat that Turkey is among a handful of first and top responders. Its policies aim to meet the basic needs of refugees with few options outside Bashar al-Assad's warzone Syria. Basics like safe territory, which Turkey provides by keeping its border open to Syrians able to reach it.

On paper, Turkey's response is difficult to criticize, especially by governments that have done far less -- and are geographically positioned to do far less. But in the details and implementation of Turkish policies, major failures emerge. For example, Amnesty International reports that Turkey's open-door policy is highly selective. Only Syrians with passports are allowed in, and those without papers have been forcibly turned back -- some of those have been killed or seriously injured, allegedly at the hands of Turkish guards. A second striking example is that Syrians are supposed to be able to apply for a work permit, but Amnesty International says it could not find a single Syrian with authorization to work. There are also major problems accessing ID cards, primary schools, hospitals and medication.

This is what limbo looks like. Officially, Syrians in Turkey are temporary. They have "temporary protection status" and have even been called "guests" by the government. Refugees can't go back to any kind of security in Syria, and there are a sorry number of places to go beyond Turkey and a handful of countries in the region like Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. In these countries, living conditions for refugees are no less bleak than in Turkey. Foreign governments are spending money on aid, and on fortifying borders -- notably European ones -- but they are spending just a fraction of those costs on resettlement, which is the only durable solution apart from a political one.

Canada's Resettlement Response

Canada has so far pledged 200 spots for Syrians to be government-assisted refugees (GARs). In addition, the government opened 1,100 new spots for the private sector to resettle Syrians, a category known as privately sponsored refugees (PSRs), bringing the total newly created spots to 1,300. As of November of this year, 457 have so far arrived.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has asked the international community to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. Next Tuesday, on December 9, the UNHCR will host a pledging conference in Geneva, giving governments a platform to announce new action on the crisis. Civil society groups are lobbying the Canadian government to fill 10 per cent of the appeal and offer 10,000 spots for Syrians to come to Canada.

Through an access to information request, the Ottawa Citizen's Lee Berthiaume learned that after the UN appeal, Citizenship and Immigration Canada officials briefed the minister, Chris Alexander, that Canada could comfortably resettle thousands more Syrians. Berthiaume writes: "officials said Canada has space to accept 3,000 more government-assisted refugees in 2015, 2,700 in 2016 and 4,700 in 2017."

Comfortably then, that's 5,700 of the 10,000 spots for the years 2015-2016 that civil society groups want Canada to fill (of the 100,000 requested by the UN, of the 3.2 million registered Syrian refugees). And with more money allocated to resettlement agencies, it's easy to imagine Canada pledging all 10,000.

If meeting 10 per cent of the UN appeal seems like an unfair burden on Canada, consider that Germany met the UN's 2013-2014 appeal for 30,000 Syrian refugees almost single-handedly. Germany opened spots for 20,000 Syrians, and in addition, offered a visa program for Syrians already in Germany to sponsor their relatives. The drawback to the German program is that it only gives a temporary right to stay: Two years with the option to extend if the situation in Syria has not improved.

Despite government statements that Canada has done "more than any of our allies," our allies have introduced smart humanitarian policies that have moved far more Syrians abroad than anything Ottawa has yet introduced. Canada can look to them -- Germany, Sweden, Norway, Brazil and more -- for inspiration. Here are just some of the options:

- Increase the number of resettlement spots

- Enable Syrian relatives to join family members in Canada

- Create scholarships for Syrian students

- Offer medical evacuation

- Lift the cap on private sponsorship for Syrians and match private sponsorship applications with additional government spots

- Meet private sponsors halfway on costs

- Offer humanitarian admission

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Gill Rosenberg