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Here Are 2 Ways Canada Can Help Syrian Refugees

10/07/2015 08:25 EDT | Updated 10/07/2016 05:12 EDT
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Faith leaders and community groups across Canada are feverishly mobilizing to receive thousands of Syrian refugees. Meanwhile federal candidates are vying for air time with proposals to enlarge the numbers of people our country will settle.

Canadians seem to be stepping up to the plate.

But is there also an anti-refugee backlash building in Canada?

An Angus-Reid poll taken on September 4 reported that while a majority of Canadians thought that our nation should sponsor more refugees, 44 per cent of respondents also thought that we should offer more financial support to Europe, but not take in more migrants ourselves. And 23 per cent said Canada should do nothing.

And when that same polling firm asked again, two weeks later, the percentage of Canadians desiring that their government "do nothing" about refugees had risen to 28 per cent.

Canada should open our doors in an expedited manner to asylum seekers. For well over a year, Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) has join many other organizations in calling for Ottawa accept at least 10,000 Syrians. We have also opposed discrimination against refugees from that region on the basis of their religion.

So where do the parties currently stand on the question of admission of Syrian refugees?

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But we must look beyond these numbers. There are two other areas where policy changes are needed in terms of Canada's treatment of refugees.

Private Settlement Concerns

The possibility of asylum-seekers obtaining refugee status in Canada has been weakened by the federal government, according to private Sponsorship Agreement Holders. A CPJ survey of faith-based and community groups (who settle refugees in this country every day) revealed widespread and near unanimous concern with bureaucratic delays in processing, government cuts to refugee health coverage, a lack of consultation from our politicians, and a lack of immigration officials in Canadian visa posts abroad.

Whatever party wins on October 19 needs to address these breakdowns and improve our private sponsorship and government-assisted refugee policies if Canada is to have a plausible hope of settling the number of people that we have now committed to accept.

An easy and desirable first step would be to immediately revoke the 2012 cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program, which has been opposed by nearly all national health and refugee rights organizations in Canada and many faith-based sponsorship groups. Even a federal court demanded that the federal government restore this program, naming the cut "cruel and unusual."

A Global Crisis

Globally, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people is unprecedented -- and the Canadian response has not met the challenge.

At the end of 2014, 59.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide. This is 8.3 million persons more than the year before and the highest annual increase in a single year ever recorded. Such a global crisis should not be ignored -- but human suffering is being unnecessarily protracted, due in part to the lack of adequate global response.

Eighty-six per cent of the world's refugees find themselves in over-crowded and under-funded refugee camps, hosted by developing countries that are already struggling to support their own citizens. The average length of stay in refugee camps is now approaching 20 years, up from an average of nine years in the early 1990s.

Unless international humanitarian aid grows substantially, it cannot keep pace with the massive needs caused by climate-related disasters, and from conflicts such as in Syria. But since 2000, donor governments to the UN have, on average, met less than two thirds of the needs set out in UN humanitarian appeals.

Why are we seeing hundreds of thousands of Syrians (and others) attempting dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea to enter Europe? After fleeing violence at home, the situation in the countries of asylum remains desperate and hopeless. As of June 2015, the UN's humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees was only 23 per cent funded. Any family that can leave a situation of virtual limbo would obviously decide it is preferable to take that perilous chance.

The international community cannot allow an increasing number of crises around the world to be forgotten, unable to receive the funding necessary to meet people's most basic needs. We risk creating more desperate migrant flows if insufficient international response becomes the norm.

For its part, Canada has cut its foreign aid funding with disastrous consequences.

Under previous Liberal governments, Canada's spending on foreign aid began to fall in relation to the size of our economy -- in spite of the long-standing target of dedicating 0.7 per cent to overseas development assistance. Under the Conservatives since 2011, even raw dollar figures have declined. In 2014, development assistance spending was $4.9 billion, down 14 per cent from $5.7 billion three years before. Ottawa's spending on foreign aid now sits at 0.24 per cent of Gross National Income -- falling below the OECD average for the first time since 1969.

The global migration crisis, typified most recently by the Syrian conflict, should be addressed by Canada accepting many more refugees. Yet, adequate responses demand more profound solutions.

Federal refugee policies must be reformed in order to overhaul the cumbersome refugee application process. Enhancing the ability of private sponsorship groups to settle refugees should include better communication and consultation with government, quicker approvals, and renewal of the Interim Federal Health Program, which successfully provided health coverage since 1957. And Canada must more generously assist those poorer countries who are coping with the brunt of migration flows worldwide, by increasing development assistance, especially humanitarian aid supporting refugees and internally displaced peoples.

All human beings have the right to migrate if their families face harm. A country like Canada can accept many more refugees, and can enhance their chances for successful lives here. And we must also accept global responsibilities to stem the tide of people forced, beyond their own will, to move.

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