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Syrian Refugees: Is None Too Many?

What does it say that Harper's government is willing to pay to liberate a mere 200 souls?

By Crawford Kilian 15 Jul 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Every generation likes to think it's reached some peak of ethical perfection; every generation's descendants think the same thing about themselves, and wince at their forebears' follies and ignorance.

If we ever wonder what our grandchildren will despise us for, one failure has been staring us in the face for over three years: the plight of Syria's refugees.

Street protests in March 2011 seemed at first like an encouraging part of the Arab Spring: popular demonstrations that could soon lead to the ouster of Bashar al-Assad and the establishment of some kind of democratic state in his place. We could applaud from the sidelines without even having to commit any military forces, as we had in Libya when it was overthrowing Colonel Qadafi.

Instead, Assad turned out to be a far tougher dictator than Qadafi. He has fought his opponents almost to a standstill, while driving seven million Syrians out of their homes. About two and a half million of them have fled the country.

Most of those have gone to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Smaller numbers have reached Iraq, Egypt, and Algeria; a thousand Syrians have even ended up in Gaza.

These numbers are a heavy burden on the host countries' economies. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that as of July 7, one million Syrians are now in Turkey, only 800,000 of them registered. Over 200,000 are living in camps.

UNHCR says that non-governmental support for the refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt will cost $3.74 billion this year. But only fractions of this sum have been met, from 17 percent in Turkey to 36 per cent in Jordan.

Begging for alms

This is not surprising. "Humanitarian" is a long way to spell "beggar," and both UN agencies and NGOs must simply beg for alms from prosperous countries and their citizens. The alms must cover the needs of suffering people in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Palestine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Haiti, and many other countries too poor to absorb the shocks of violence, disease, and natural disaster.

So where does wealthy Canada fit into the picture? In theory, Harper's government has magnanimously invited 1,300 refugees from Syria. But 1,100 of them have to be privately sponsored. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander recently got into a farcical exchange with CBC Radio's As It Happens about how many refugees have actually arrived here. Alexander kept refusing to give a number; program host Carol Off kept asking for it until he hung up on her.

Canada's passive-aggressive foreign policy

La Rochefoucauld famously observed long ago that we always find the strength to bear the misfortunes of others. This is not a strength we should be proud of, our governments least of all.

Historically, western governments have tended to welcome politically convenient refugees. If a Cuban and a Haitian land together on a Florida beach, for example, the Cuban gets to stay and the Haitian is deported forthwith.

After the failed Hungarian revolt in 1956, Canada welcomed many refugees fleeing the Soviets, including a whole school of forestry absorbed into UBC's. Now, despite a semi-fascist government in Hungary, Canada is reluctant to admit Roma refugees fleeing Hungarian persecution.

In other words, we carry out a passive-aggressive foreign policy by loudly admitting people fleeing from regimes we don't approve of, while quietly rebuffing refugees from our friends.

Canada has an uneven record here. The Pearson and Trudeau Liberals welcomed American draft dodgers and deserters in the 1960s and '70s, but deserters from the Iraq War got the bum's rush from Stephen Harper's Conservatives. In the 1970s we were happy to admit the Vietnamese boat people and the Indian Ugandans kicked out by Idi Amin. More recently, we've accepted Somalis and Tamils, though with mixed feelings.

Recruiting the best and bravest

In the 1930s, our grandparents were anything but open to such refugees. The Nazis were beginning the horror of the Holocaust in Europe, but Canada didn't give a damn. A powerful 1983 book, None Is Too Many, documented the genteel bigotry that rebuffed Jewish refugees. "None is too many" was reportedly the definition of a postwar immigration official of the acceptable number of Jewish refugees in Canada. Anti-Semitism was just another facet of the typical Anglo-Canadian attitude toward First Nations, Asians, and anyone else not ethnically English or Scots.

Slowly, in the second half of the 20th century, we abandoned the stupid idea of "a white man's Canada." We began to admit more Asians and Africans, not just refugees, and we watched them flourish. We acquired something between a taste and an addiction for pho, samosas, and sushi.

As a college teacher between 1968 and 2008, I met students who had escaped from horrors around the world: Vietnamese and Chileans, smart young Ugandan Ismailis, Czechs who wept when they talked about 1968, Iranians who feared the Shah's Savak secret police even in 1960s West Vancouver.

Without realizing it, we had accidentally recruited the bravest and brightest, the most imaginative, the people too good for the status quo at home.

They were just the latest arrivals in a Canada that has found a windfall in almost every global upheaval of the past century. Whether it was Doukhoubors driven from Russia, or the Hutterites, or the Toisan speakers of the Pearl River Delta, or Salvador Allende's followers driven from Chile, we have welcomed them, struggled to understand them, and grown stronger from them.

You would think that our own history would teach us to seek more such windfalls. Now we have the chance to acquire the best of a couple of million Syrians, an invaluable human resource like the Jews of the 1930s. But Stephen Harper's government prefers to fret about "bogus" refugee claimants.

For Canada, on this file, progress is an extremely relative concept. Liberal MP Marc Garneau said last spring that Canada has admitted just nine Syrian refugees up until then, when other countries had admitted thousands.

What countries? Well, the U.K. has admitted just 24.

Finland, with about the population of B.C., has found room for 500. Sweden, population 9.5 million, accepted 26,461 asylum seekers in 2013, one in five of all such people in the EU -- including 12,000 Syrians.

Germany has accepted 40,000 Syrians and plans to accept another 10,000; the Germans took in 300,000 refugees during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

When the world has almost 50 million refugees, even Germany's contribution seems trivial; ours is both contemptible and foolish.

Our loss

If nothing else, we should welcome Syria's refugees out of sheer self-interest. Canada has repeatedly profited from its refugees: the Vietnamese, the Ugandan Ismailis, the Chinese -- not to mention those like the Dutch who came here after World War II because we'd liberated them from the Nazis.

All those earlier immigrants had experienced life under brutal dictatorships and knew how lethal they are. Once settled here, they helped build a country that deserves to be proud of its ability to keep over a hundred cultures working and prospering together. The immigrants, more than many of us, know the value of this country.

We are already a country of immigrants and refugees; they have made us what we are. From the Syrians we can expect hard work, commitment to building a new life, and the kind of gratitude we currently do not deserve.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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