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Election 2015

Exposed: Three Myths about Canada's Refugee System

Team Harper's talking points, debunked. And what we should do.

Laura Best and Fadi Yachoua 8 Sep

Laura Best and Fadi Yachoua are immigration and refugee lawyers based in Vancouver, B.C.

Last week, the world reacted with sadness and anger to the images of Alan Kurdi's body washed up on a Turkish beach. The story hit home for many Canadians when we learnt that Alan and his family had been hoping to make it to Canada. Alan's aunt, Tima, had tried unsuccessfully to sponsor her other brother, Mohammad, and his family for admission to Canada. Faced with the legal and logistical impossibility of coming to Canada legally, Alan's parents made the excruciating, and fatal, decision to travel to Europe by boat.

Now, four years into the Syrian civil war, the plight of refugees and Canada's response is top of the nightly news cycle -- and the new election lighting rod.

The numbers at stake defy comprehension. Four million Syrians, just shy of the entire population of British Columbia, have fled their country since the war began. More than twice that number is internally displaced.

In justifying the anemic government response to the crisis, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander have repeated three talking points, none of which stand up to scrutiny.

Myth #1: Canada is the most generous nation when it comes to refugees

The most insidious, and most inaccurate, of the Conservative allegations is that Canada is the most generous nation in the world to refugees. In his disappointing Power and Politics interview, Minister Alexander stated that Canada "has one of the most generous per capita immigration and refugee resettlement programs in the world." This statement subtly evades the real issue, in two ways. First, the minister deliberately conflates "immigrants" with "refugees."

In 2014, Canada welcomed 260,404 new permanent residents to Canada; only 23,286 of these came through the refugee program, amounting to less than 10 per cent. As a further point of reference, Canada now welcomes more than 300,000 temporary foreign workers to the country each year. Refugees account for a tiny percentage of Canada's "generous" immigration program. Referencing the size of Canada's immigration program as a whole says very little about Canada's generosity toward refugees specifically.

Second, the minister focuses only on "resettled refugees." In Canada, as with many other signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, there are two streams for refugees to come to Canada. One is to seek asylum by entering the country and then filing a refugee claim in person. Given the geographic and legal difficulties in physically making it to Canada, we receive far fewer claimants a year than other countries in Europe or North America. Canada is on track to receive about 15,000 refugee claimants this year. In contrast, Germany expects around 800,000, while Sweden, at one-third of Canada's size, is expecting about 80,000 refugee claimants.

The other avenue for refugees is through the resettlement process. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees works with recipient countries to resettle about 100,000 people a year, a tiny fraction of the world's 19.5 million refugees displaced outside their countries.

Canada does resettle about 10,000 refugees annually through the UNHCR program, but it increasingly relies on private sponsorships from families, churches and community groups to fund the resettlement program. In 2005, fewer than 30 per cent of resettled refugees had private sponsorships; the majority were government-assisted refugees. In 2013, the proportion of private sponsorships had grown to more than 50 per cent.

Taking both resettled refugees and successful refugee claimants together, about 25,000 refugees become Canadian permanent residents each year. This is a tiny fraction of the number of refugees flooding into Europe and Syria's Middle Eastern neighbours.

Myth #2: Canada is doing everything it can

In mid-2013, then-citizenship and immigration minister Jason Kenney announced that Canada would resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. Only 200 were government-assisted refugees; the rest were privately sponsored. Canada did not manage to fill this meagre promise until March 2015. The Conservatives have now promised that they would resettle another 10,000 Syrians by the end of 2017. This commitment does not reflect a rise in the overall target of resettled refugees -- Canada is merely choosing to fill its small resettlement goals with Syrians, rather than refugees of other nationalities.

In addition to a meagre resettlement target, the Conservative government has spent its tenure campaigning against "bogus refugees" and erecting legal hurdles to deter both resettled refugees and refugee claimants.

A group of five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents can sponsor a refugee living abroad to come to Canada. Prior to October 2012, refugees coming through this program did not need to be recognized as refugees by either the UNHCR or a foreign state. Now they do. This new hurdle -- often logistically impossible in war-torn states -- was added by the Conservative government.

The rationale for this additional bureaucratic step was to reduce the number of applications. As set out in the Canada Gazette: "Citizenship and Immigration Canada anticipates a significant reduction in the number of [Group of Five] applications submitted each year as a result of the regulatory change." Even if refugees can overcome the logistical hurdles, processing times at Canadian visa offices range from one to five years for private refugee resettlement.

The Conservative government also implemented legal changes for refugee claimants in Canada including increased powers of detention, outrageously short timelines to prepare for hearings and appeals, and cuts to refugee health care. A new report concluded that these changes to the refugee process impede access to counsel and can compromise the fairness of the hearing.

Myth #3: The focus should be on bombing ISIL

The Harper government's policy has centred on an aerial bombardment campaign that is targeting the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Whenever Prime Minister Harper has been asked about his government's woefully inadequate response to the Syrian refugee crisis, he has responded by reiterating the need to continue dropping bombs on Syria and Iraq.

Reflecting on the ongoing crises in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya exposes the flawed rationale that military intervention resolves conflict, stems the flow of refugees, and leads to stable and functional countries.

The Syrian civil war, as many observers feared, became a proxy war with a complex mix of domestic, regional, and international players and interests. ISIL, while brutal and barbaric in their methods, are just one component of the civil war matrix. The only way to resolve such a protracted armed conflict is through tenacious diplomacy, a process Canada is naturally suited to as a middle power, not military intervention.

Next steps

We must demand more from our political representatives who cannot hide behind talking points and skewed statistics.

Canada could take simple steps to ease the humanitarian crisis, including:

• Dramatically increase the resettlement target for Syrians and for refugees overall;

• Expedite all Syrian applications by increasing staff resources at appropriate visa posts;

• Remove the UNHCR documentary requirement for Group of Five refugees to allow Canadians to privately and directly resettle refugees;

• Facilitate people coming as temporary residents (visitors, students, workers) and assist their transition to permanent residency through immigration streams like refugee claims and humanitarian and compassionate applications.

The UNHCR has observed that Syria's "only solace is the humanity shown by the neighbouring countries in welcoming and saving the lives of so many refugees." Canada must step up to this global challenge and assist Middle Eastern and European countries in resettling Syrian refugees.

Complacence and inaction will lead to the loss of more lives, and further tarnish our humanitarian values and reputation at home and abroad.  [Tyee]

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