06/20/2016 10:29 EDT | Updated 06/20/2016 10:59 EDT

World Refugee Day: Canada Can Help Address The Global Refugee Crisis


Today, we mark World Refugee Day, amidst the most challenging and troubling time for global refugee protection since World War II. It is time to turn the global focus away from the cruel and illegal means now used to keep refugees away; and instead embrace our shared international responsibility to ensure they are safe. Canada can and must play a leading role in making sure that change happens.

Sadly, on the very eve of a day that should provide an opportunity for governments and the general public to redouble their commitment and strengthen efforts to protect refugees, there were harrowing reports that around 11 Syrian refugees, including perhaps three children, may have been killed by Turkish border guards while they were trying to flee Syria and cross into Turkey. It is a grim reminder that we face a global refugee crisis; a crisis for many reasons.

The numbers are undeniably of crisis proportion. The UNHCR has noted that the combined total of all people who have been forced from their homes as refugees or who remain internally displaced within their countries is approximately 60 million and would amount to the 24th most populous nation on earth. During 2014 that amounted to an average of 42,500 women, men and children fleeing every single day, the equivalent of the city of Charlottetown emptying out 365 times over the course of one year.

There are upcoming opportunities to turn this harrowing reality around.

Turkey stands as a staggering example, now home to 2.75 million Syrian refugees. On a straight comparison of our populations, that would be the equivalent of Canada hosting around 1.3 million Syrians; far and above the commendable -- but in the global scheme of things, very limited -- resettlement effort that has engaged so many communities and captivated the nation in recent months.

The crisis is not only about numbers. It is a crisis because the measures pursued by governments in response only serve to deepen the suffering and inequity rather than ease the strain and open up solutions. Politicians eager for votes pander to and fuel xenophobia and fear about refugees. Barbed wire is rolled across borders and soldiers are deployed to patrol frontiers. Coast Guard vessels are sent out to intercept boats and send refugees back. Insidious agreements, such as the notorious EU-Turkey refugee deal, treat refugees as commodities and bargaining chips, stripping them of their dignity, rights and shared humanity.

Above all else, though, it is a crisis in the extent to which it has provoked such desperation and hopelessness that refugees head off on terrifyingly dangerous journeys -- fleeing Syria and Eritrea for Europe, Central America for the United States, or Myanmar for Australia -- gambling with their lives day in and day out. They know the perils that await them in the Mediterranean, Mexican rainforests, or the Bay of Bengal; but feel there are simply no other options left.

There are upcoming opportunities to turn this harrowing reality around. In two back-to-back major international meetings in September world leaders will gather to grapple with the refugee crisis. First, there will be a high-level meeting at the annual session of the UN General Assembly, an opportunity for focused UN action that governments reserve for truly pressing global concerns. Next, President Obama has convened a Summit immediately after the UN meeting, at which there will be considerable pressure on governments to identify solutions and make commitments. Canada has stepped up and agreed to be one of a handful of co-hosts for that Summit.

We need progress on at least five fronts.

First, while it may sound naive, we absolutely need leaders to make personal pledges to be refugee champions. That means that they will not, themselves, fuel the suspicions, distorted myths and outright hatred that lead to border closings. Instead, they will stand up for the generosity and compassion that is promised and owed refugees under international law.

Second, governments have to reinvigorate prevention agendas that will more effectively tackle the mass human rights violations, deep poverty and armed conflict that provoke displacement in the first place. It is a wide-ranging agenda that includes women's equality, civilian protection, arms control, corporate accountability and international justice.

Third, it is time to respect the refugee rights framework that governments have properly committed themselves to in the 1951 Refugee Convention and international human rights treaties. Refugees are routinely treated as if they are somehow excluded from the human rights that apply equally and universally to us all: locked up in camps, denied health care and education and kept out of employment. It is not only unjust, it is bad public policy and serves only to prolong refugee situations and deepen both the associated suffering and insecurity.

Fourth, a focus on empowering refugees would go far in finding solutions. I recall the fiery words of young woman from Sudan's conflict-ravaged South Kordofan state who I interviewed in an isolated refugee camp in neighbouring South Sudan. Her legitimate complaint was that for the rest of the world, refugees were nothing but statistics for lists and charts, and X's on a map. Gone was any appreciation for their humanity and the fact that they might be the ones best placed to make the smartest decisions about their fate.

Canada's nation-wide commitment to Syrian refugees has garnered attention around the world.

Fifth and perhaps most pressing, it is vital that states move to establish a binding framework for international responsibility sharing when it comes to refugee protection. Back in 1951, in drafting the Refugee Convention, states recognized that protecting refugees could not "be achieved without international cooperation." But no binding obligations were included in the Convention to ensure that promised international cooperation would be forthcoming; be it cooperating financially or through equitable resettlement processes.

Over 80 per cent of the world's refugees remain in the Global South. The UNHCR, the agency responsible for their protection, says about one million of those women, men and young people (less than five per cent of the overall total) are in need of resettlement but states have only offered up space for about 100,000. And on the financial front, the UNHCR is only assured three per cent of its budget every year, through the core UN budget. The remaining 97 per cent has to be raised by going cap in hand to governments, pleading for voluntary contributions. This has to change; not by ditching the Refugee Convention but by building on it.

It is an ambitious agenda for the September meetings. But we cannot afford to wait.

Canada's nation-wide commitment to Syrian refugees has garnered attention around the world. It reminds us that 30 years ago Canada was awarded the refugee world's equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nansen Medal. It is the only time that honour has gone to an entire country. Three decades later the time is right for Canada to step back into that role on the world stage.

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