10/01/2015 08:30 EDT | Updated 10/01/2016 05:12 EDT

Canada Must Lead By Example In Global Refugee Crisis

Pierre Crom via Getty Images
MYTILENE, GREECE - SEPTEMBER 24: Refugees and migrants arrive ashore on the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey as they journey into Europe on September 24, 2015 in Lesbos, Greece. Migrants continue to make the dangerous sea crossing ahead of the onset of Autumnal weather. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)


Three men wait to be transferred from a wooden fishing boat in the Mediterannean Sea to a rescue boat operated by Doctors Without Borders. Photo credit: © Gabriele François Casini/MSF

The lifejacket in the image accompanying this letter belonged to one of the over 16,000 people who have been rescued on the Mediterranean Sea by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) since May of this year.

This lifejacket, and the person who wore it, are indicative of a wider failure of United Nations member states to meet their obligations to care for and to extend safe passage and asylum to those who fear for their safety or who seek better lives for their families.

People don't abandon their homes out of choice, and they are not unaware of the risks they will face along their journeys. It is out of desperation that they flee war and torture, misery, poverty and persecution. Doctors Without Borders delivers humanitarian medical care and sees first-hand the suffering and horrible conditions that drive people to risk their lives for the chance of a better future. We are also on the front lines of the European Union (EU) refugee crisis, providing healthcare to people who courageously undertake these journeys. We have seen the gut-wrenching psychological and moral impact on people when they see the doors of safe countries slammed shut, while public debate focuses on economic fears, deterrence and dehumanizing discourse about "the other."


A lifejacket recovered from Doctors Without Borders rescue operations on the Mediterranean Sea. credit ©MSF

A global crisis that needs a global solution

This crisis, captured by a tragic image of a child's death and by collective distress along EU borders, has rightly shocked the world . But these harrowing scenes are not confined to Europe. Over 60 million people are uprooted by conflict and chaos around the world today. From Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar and adrift on the Andaman Sea, to families driven from their homes by war in South Sudan and people escaping violence and extortion in Central America, we are witnessing a global crisis, one that presents a fundamental challenge to our moral responsibilities as an international community.

Canada, with its proud tradition of welcoming refugees and defending human rights, has been called upon to do more by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Antonio Guterres made this call ahead of Wednesday's special meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York, which will discuss the refugee and migrant crisis. What better backdrop than the world's biggest gathering of international leaders for Canada to offer humanitarian support for people in flight, increased asylum numbers (including for civilians wounded or tortured in conflict) and further easing of cumbersome refugee application processes so that the most vulnerable can easily apply.

Canada can make a difference

More than simply living up to our obligations as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, Canada should also uphold and defend the spirit in which these agreements were signed -- by ensuring hope, dignity and humanitarian assistance for those uprooted by war and strife. A courageous Canada can rise to the occasion by making its voice heard, showing resolve and announcing greater action, thus joining those European states -- many of whom have responded to pressure from their own populations -- that have opened their borders and welcomed greater numbers of those seeking refuge.

By exhibiting moral clarity, Canada can also set an example to other governments who have seemingly been unable to come to terms with the challenge at hand, helping them to find their collective way. This could be a first step to help dismantle the recently erected fences and barriers to safe passage, which only drive those in flight to take ever more dangerous routes in seeking to flee violence.

Finally, Canada should encourage member states to ensure that life-saving and basic needs are met, and that humanitarian appeals are fully funded, in order to reverse the funding shortfalls and assistance cutbacks that have become the norm in humanitarian crises -- whether in Syria, in Africa, or anywhere else around the world.

Beyond this week's meeting in New York, we ask that all of Canada's federal party leaders commit themselves to placing Canada at the heart of efforts to find solutions to this global crisis. This country can make an essential difference -- by ensuring safe passage for people in flight, and by making the need for their harrowing journeys obsolete . It is time for Canada to step up and provide the leadership the world needs.

Doctors Without Borders does not have all the answers, but we bear witness to the tragic human impact of a global system that shuts out people who seek to escape violence, poverty and misery -- people who, like many Canadians, seek only a safe place for their children and their families.

Stephen Cornish is executive director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada; Dr. Heather Culbert is the president of MSF Canada. This open letter was originally published in the Globe and Mail.