09/05/2015 09:14 EDT | Updated 09/06/2016 05:59 EDT

Refugees Like My Parents May Be the Best Investment Canada Makes

izustun via Getty Images
Hand holding a loupe, spotting a location on the map.

Dear Honourable Minister James Moore:

I write to address our government's response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

This crisis, as it has been unfolding over the past few months, has struck a personal chord with me. I myself am a child of refugees to this country. My family came here with only the belongings they could carry with them to give themselves and their children an opportunity to have a better life. Within one generation, I achieved a law degree. I have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the Canadian community. I am but one example of thousands, evidence that should easily persuade you to conclude that assistance to refugees is a solid investment in the future of our nation, and not simply an act of charity.

The notion that refugees are an investment deserves attention, but for the moment I wish to focus on what has motivated me to write to you. I wish to comment on what appears to me to be our nation's increasing apathy toward the suffering of others, something that to my mind has become more prevalent under your government's rule, resulting in our diminished reputation on the world stage. The purpose of my letter is to motivate you to advocate for change within your government, so that we can refocus our priorities and find our collective identity once again.

In 1956-57, my family came to Canada among 37,000 Hungarians who were offered transport by the Canadian government in the months following the failed 1956 revolution against Soviet occupation. The Canadian government organized over 200 chartered flights and ships to bring those Hungarians to Canada -- this in response to a crisis of only 200,000 defectors to Austria. Canada's proportionate share amounted to almost 25 per cent of the total burden.

By comparison, there are an estimated four million -- four million -- Syrian refugees escaping a much longer and more violent conflict.

Canada has known about the significant number of refugees fleeing Syria and other parts of the Middle East affected by the ISIL threat for months now. Until recently, Canada's response was a commitment to accept only 13,000 (10,000 Syrians and 3,000 Iraqis) over three years -- just 10,000 of four million refugees -- or only 0.25 per cent of the total number of displaced persons requiring resettlement.

Even more problematic, your government discriminated against those in need on the basis of their religion, insisting on prioritizing ethnic and religious minorities, whom I presume to be Christians.

Roughly 90 per cent of the refugees requiring resettlement are Muslim. Muslim lives are worth no less than Christian lives.

By imposing a system of "prioritization" of religious minorities, our government is doing exactly what it purports to condemn: it is discriminating on the basis of religious belief. We are telling one religious group their lives are less important than another's.

Of significance, the UNHCR strongly discourages the practice of selecting refugees on the basis of religion, explaining that "such discrimination undermines the protection and needs-based approach to resettlement creating inequalities and protection gaps, and limits access to resettlement by some refugees most at risk." Instead, the UNHCR urges resettlement on the basis of several factors, including family size, age and health status in addition to concerns about religious persecution.

We are a wealthy, sophisticated and civilized nation. We also have a purposeful separation of church and state, a system that permits our citizens to enjoy freedom of religion, thought and speech. Prioritizing refugees on the basis of their religious beliefs alone is wrong and not representative of our multicultural and multi-faith community. We are a tolerant society. By prioritizing religious minorities, your government is only highlighting our differences and preaching intolerance for "the other."

What is most alarming about your government's position on the Syrian refugee crisis over the past few months, however, is the absence of public criticism of it.

Announcements in January of your government's inadequate commitment and prioritization of religious minorities were largely ignored. News stories and photographs of refugees in camps, living in squalid conditions, were passed over in news feeds. More news stories and photographs, of desperate refugees reaching (and often not reaching) the shores of the European continent, went unnoticed by most. Even the plea for attention to this crisis following the report of 71 decomposing bodies found in the back of a lorry failed to ignite more than a handful of likes on my own Facebook page.

Then, suddenly, we awoke. A photograph of a lifeless toddler lying on a beach in Turkey finally provoked a meaningful response from the Canadian populace. The photograph was particularly effective because of its Canadian connection: it was first reported, albeit incorrectly, that this little boy had an aunt in Canada and that his family's refugee application had been denied in June despite the family's appeal being hand-delivered to your fellow cabinet minister, Chris Alexander.

Your government immediately went into damage control mode and was quick to clarify that this particular child's family had not submitted a formal application for refugee status, his uncle's family had. It was also quickly corrected that the uncle's application had been denied because it was "incomplete."

To my mind, it matters little whether it was this little boy's or another family's application that was rejected. The fact is that your government is rejecting applications from Syrian refugees. As a result, people are dying. Children are dying. Those who survive are forced to endure horrible, undignified, desperate conditions.

If an application is incomplete, resources should be offered to assist the applicant in completing it. Why have we not sent an outreach team of visa officers to the refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, or Egypt as we have in the past? Why are we requiring refugees to have the wherewithal to figure it out for themselves?

I ask that you kindly encourage your government to take immediate action. Canada has a great tradition of being a responsible, compassionate world citizen. We need to assume a greater role in the resettlement effort.

Germany intends to accept several hundred thousand refugees. While Germany's population is greater than ours, permitting it to absorb a greater share, our current commitment is not nearly comparative to our population and our available resources. A commitment of only 10,000, 25,000, or 50,000 will do little to assist in resettlement efforts for a group of this size. Canada should be committing to at least 100,000, if not 200,000.

We need to do more. We know we can do more. We have done more before.

This is my plea to you, and to my fellow Canadian citizens, to remind ourselves of how fortunate we are to be able to wake up each morning with a roof over our heads and food on our tables in a safe, peaceful community where we have the opportunity to pursue our dreams and ambitions.

We need to be generous in sharing our good fortune with those who were not born so lucky.


Sandra L. Kovacs

A resident in your riding

Correction: A previous version of this blog stated that Canada's proportionate share contribution to the Hungarian refugee resettlement was 40 per cent, when it was actually 25 per cent.


Syrians Flee Into Turkey, June 2015