Since the August 21 sarin gas attack outside Damascus, international headlines on the civil war that has been raging in Syria for two and a half years have been dominated by the deal brokered by the United States and Russia to dismantle the Syrian regime’s stock of chemical weapons. President Bashar al-Assad has recently fulfilled the first requirement under the draft agreement by turning over a list detailing the types and quantities of chemical agents that his regime possesses to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The importance of taking chemical weapons off the table shouldn’t be underplayed, since the strike killed an estimated 1,429 people and constituted the world’s most devastating chemical weapons attack in the last 25 years. However, the discourse over chemical weapons and the stalemate between the United States and Russia on military intervention has also served to shift the focus towards the diplomatic wrangling taking place at the Security Council, and away from any long-term plan to respond to the most serious refugee crisis since that created by the seven-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The numbers coming out of Syria are often repeated and constantly rising. An estimated 100,000 people have been killed since violence erupted in April 2011 when soldiers fired on demonstrators across the country. United Nations data indicates that more than two million Syrians have fled the country and taken refuge in the neighbouring states of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Even this astronomical number probably doesn’t reflect the extent of the humanitarian crisis, as the UN High Commission for Refugees is only accounting for people who enter those countries legally and register as refugees. In addition, another four million people within Syria have been internally displaced.
The rapid influx of refugees has put enormous pressure on the infrastructures and budgets of the host countries. Turkey, where a population of 4.2 million people is hosting over 700,000 Syrian refugees, has been coping with a 17 percent increase to its population over the past year. Jordan had been experiencing a chronic water shortage before 2000 Syrian refugees started crossing the border on a daily basis, and that problem is now being deemed a full-blown crisis. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan now ranks as the country’s fourth-largest city. A World Bank report estimates that Lebanon has lost $7.5 billion as a result of the strain on its resources, which is a staggering amount for a country already deeply in debt. The economic pressure on these countries has sparked existing political and sectarian tensions, a dangerous combination for nations long-plagued by social unrest.
The only thing the international community seems to be able to agree on is that there is no end in sight. Even if the war were to end today and the refugees were to return, the majority of them would have no home to go back to, as an estimated two-thirds of residences have been destroyed. Several countries have responded with plans to resettle Syrian refugees within their own borders. Recognizing that the situation in Syria has deteriorated to the point that it is now permanent, Sweden has offered permanent residency to the 14,700 Syrian asylum-seekers that have sought its protection. The United States intends to permanently resettle 2,000 Syrian refugees.
For its part, Canada has committed to resettling 1,300 refugees, however as 1,100 of those will be privately-sponsored, the government is only taking responsibility for 200 people. So far, a total of nine people have actually arrived in Canada as protected persons. This meager number is better understood by reference to Canada’s past precedents for resettling asylum-seekers. In 1956 Canada took in 37,000 Hungarians fleeing Soviet oppression. In the 1970s, 60,000 Vietnamese “Boat People” were granted asylum in Canada. During the Kosovo War, Canada resettled some 5,000 Kosovar refugees. Given the gravity of the situation in Syria, Canada should be committing to resettle at least 30,000 refugees, or 3.3 percent of the total.
Given the increasingly hostile attitude towards refugee claimants adopted by policy-makers at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the chances of coming anywhere near this number is remote. This attitude is exemplified by documents prepared by staff at Citizenship and Immigration Canada in response to then Minister Jason Kenney’s request for suggestions on how to cut down the number of “high need” refugees and reduce strain on the health care system. One of the options suggested was a limit to the number of refugees granted protection who have health problems, such as “developmental delay, blindness, victims of trauma and torture.” It’s difficult to conceive of how any refugees could pass such a test, since trauma tends to be part of the experience of any person forced to flee their home country. While these proposals haven’t been implemented, the federal government has made recent cuts to health services provided to refugees and refugee claimants, a move that doctors have called short-sighted and certain to put the most vulnerable at risk.
If the Canadian government is going to come anywhere close to living up to its claims of having “the most generous immigration and refugee systems in the world”, as the press secretary for the Minister has stated it, it must seriously commit itself to providing asylum to victims of the Syrian war. Such a commitment requires relaxing family sponsorship provisions and allowing family members of Canadian citizens, permanent residents and accepted refugees to come to Canada on a permanent or temporary basis, and addressing the two-year processing delays that are currently major barriers to private sponsorships. Refugee resettlement programs are intended to help the most vulnerable, and in the context of Syria that means women and children at risk in camps, elderly refugees, trauma survivors and victims of torture. This means providing federal health coverage to all Syrian asylum-seekers. As a political solution to the conflict seems further and further out of reach, the Canadian government needs to drop the rhetoric and return to its humanitarian tradition of providing refuge and protection to displaced people.