10/06/2015 01:01 EDT | Updated 10/06/2016 05:12 EDT

Our Tour of Shame

Ghost in an old medieval lunatic asylum.
AnkiHoglund via Getty Images
Ghost in an old medieval lunatic asylum.

"Where is Canada?"

In Turkey and Jordan recently, this was the question we heard over and over, from Syrian refugees themselves, crisis intervention workers, medical professionals, human rights activists and others dedicated to helping Syrians. To friends and family, I referred to my time in the region as a tour of shame, as a Canadian.

I was there with Petra Molnar as part of a small team investigating the Syrian refugee crisis, particularly the impact of the crisis on some of the most vulnerable migrants in the region, sexual minorities and those with or at risk of contracting HIV, made possible through funding from the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

We often concluded our interviews by asking people what their message would be to Canadians and our government. We were ashamed of the quizzical looks we got back, the answers always probing: "Where is Canada? Is it because we're Muslim?"

There was a clear perception among the people we spoke with that Canada preferred Christian asylum seekers, and this explained the delays and inaction. In fact, earlier this year, controversy erupted after the government indicated that it would prioritize resettlement of religious minorities from Syria. Discrimination against refugees on the basis of their religion goes against fundamental principles of refugee protection and is unacceptable for a country presenting itself as an international leader of human rights.

We had the good fortune of meeting several committed doctors in Antakya, Turkey, at the border with Syria, assembled to receive training. They begged us to ask Canada to prioritize the immediate resettlement of refugees with serious medical issues: amputees, shell victims, and victims of gender-based violence, to name a few. The horror these dedicated professionals witnessed every day was astonishing -- we heard about a doctor who gave his own blood while operating because of critical shortages of blood bags and other medical supplies. We heard of another doctor's friend who was detained for trying to smuggle medical equipment into Syria to treat the critically injured. There has been no news of him for over a year, and those close to him fear the worst. Medical professionals and those that seek to treat the injured are perceived as the enemy by the Assad regime. The fact that Canada has been open about wanting to resettle fewer refugees with high medical needs was another facet of our tour of shame. "But, why?" was the answer that was impossible to answer.

As the now-infamous photo of Alan Kurdi reminds us, there is an immediate need for Canada to show leadership in developing a concrete solution. We need to act today, not tomorrow, not in six months, and not in dribs and drabs over the next three -- four years. In the past, Canada has employed humanitarian mechanisms to bring people to Canada in urgent situations, processing them for landing from within the country, not waiting for this to happen from outside the country.

While refugee resettlement and humanitarian programs may not address the root causes of the crisis, a permanent solution to the war in Syria is not forthcoming, no matter how much Canada invests in the fight against ISIS. As countless others have urged in recent days, we must act now to offer Syrians a chance to rebuild their lives in the relative peace and security that Canada can easily offer.

On top of government inaction there have been obvious attempts to conceal the actual numbers of Syrians who have been resettled in Canada. The government has committed to bringing over 11,000 by 2017, but since 2013 less than a quarter of that number have arrived.

The truth is nobody knows the real numbers or the reason for the huge delays, and we are not getting answers. Since March, we have made numerous formal requests to access information about the process and the number of Syrians resettled in the last five years. Like many others, we have been told that the information isn't available, can't be processed, or there will be a fee of $100/10 minutes (and then $30 for each additional minute) to search the records. Why is it so difficult to find out what is going on? And why should we have to pay for public information?

The crisis is obvious, the number of Canadians with the drive and energy to help -- abundant, but the will of the government to resettle refugees quickly or bring them to Canada through emergency humanitarian programs is sorely lacking. News of a young boy washed up on shore, and his Canadian relatives' despair at the delays and hurdles in the sponsorship process for other family members has shocked and outraged our nation. It should. It is an emblem of the reality we heard about countless other asylum-seekers in the region. It is not too late to put Canada back on the map as a leader in international humanitarian and refugee assistance. Where is Canada? We have to say "here," and now.

A version of this piece was originally published in Embassy News 09/16/2015


Syrians Flee Into Turkey, June 2015