A photo of a drowned toddler boy awoke Canadians to the plight of Syrian refugees, but policy roadblocks are stymieing their compassion, argued a panel of academic experts at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

The panel, moderated by Munk senior fellow and former CBC foreign correspondent Brian Stewart, gathered Sept. 16 to discuss The Refugee Crisis: What Can Canada Do?

Randall Hansen, director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Munk School, and a professor of political science at U of T, cautioned that the current headline-making Syrian crisis, where four million Syrians have fled war in their home country, “is a very small part of a massive global problem”: there are 20 million refugees and 32 million displaced persons in the world today from places such as Congo, Sudan and Iraq. “The crisis has to be solved where the refugees are – in the global south.”

Naomi Alboim, a former deputy minister of immigration for Ontario and an adjunct professor at Queen’s University, outlined the three “durable solutions” for refugees:

  • Repatriation: if the situation the refugees are fleeing calms down, they can go home. In Syria, she says, “that’s not going to happen any time soon.”
  • Second, work with the first countries of asylum: support integration and settlement of refugees in neighbouring countries – in the Syrian case, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – as there are often more cultural and linguistic similarities. “This means more than just providing humanitarian aid – food and tents – but how you integrate people into local economies. What can we provide in terms of international development” for both refugees and citizens of their host countries? Hansen later added that integration is based on three rights: the right to work; the right to travel; and the right to an education.
  • The third solution, Alboim said, should be at the bottom of the list: resettlement into countries like Canada, U.S., Australia, Europe. However, these countries are moving “much more to looking at immigration as a labour market policy: Let’s get the brightest and the best, most skilled, who can satisfy short-term economic needs.” Only nine per cent of Canada’s immigrants now are refugees, she said.

Alboim also pointed out that while Canada accepts 260,000 immigrants as permanent residents yearly, we bring in nearly double that – 460,000 – as temporary foreign workers who have employment, but no rights to mobility or services. “We are looking at this in siloed ways ... this makes no sense to me. Don’t tell me we can’t afford 50,000 more refugees if we have jobs for 460,000 temporary foreign workers.” Federal leaders on the election campaign trail have promised to either bring in 10,000 additional Syrian refugees yearly (NDP Leader Tom Mulcair) or give Syrians priority within existing refugee allocations (Conservative leader Stephen Harper).

Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange and adjunct professor at Ryerson University, says her organization has been “inundated by sponsors, money, calls, volunteers. Interest almost doubled after the sad photo of the little boy on the beach.”

 Omidvar, co-author of the new book Flight and Freedom (about 30 refugees who came to Canada) says refugees are resilient: “Unlike immigrants, they have no choice. They cannot go back. They are obliged to put down roots. Refugees have a loyalty to this country: my family came from Iran some 30 years ago. We had an incredibly hard time. Yet my family, my children, my grandchildren are modern Canada. We are contributors in every way. You can’t think about nation building in the short term.”

Stewart pointed out that Canadians want to help refugees now as they have at other points in time, from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 to the Vietnamese / Indo-Chinese migration in 1979-1981: “so what is preventing this incredible outpouring we see now from coming to fruition?”

In two words, policy changes, responded Alboim. The Canadian government now requires recognition from the United Nations that a person is a convention refugee in order for a local group to sponsor that refugee. “However the UN Refugee Agency isn’t doing those individual assessments anymore because they don’t have resources to interview individuals. They are too busy feeding and tenting and registering them.

“We have to break that logjam,” said Alboim. “Let us agree that all Syrians are escaping civil war and all Syrians outside that country cannot go back home and we consider them, as a class, eligible for resettlement.”

As well, the only way groups in Canada can now sponsor refugees is if their group fits under the umbrella of a federally designated Sponsorship Agreement Holder. However, Alboim says, there are only 95 of these across Canada, most attached to faith-based organizations, “and they are maxed out. Many have been around since 1979 – sponsoring people from around the world.”

While there is fearmongering afoot that refugees from Syria and other countries will bring security threats, not assisting refugees could be the greatest security threat of all, Hansen said. “The state system has completely imploded in the Middle Eastern countries. We are stuck with tens of millions of displaced people.” Half of refugees in the world today are children, and only a minority of them are getting even a basic education. “If you want to worry about a security threat, that’s a security threat.”

Media and world attention have been focused on those Syrians risking their lives by taking over-seas voyages to Europe, but the panellists agreed that the real crisis is simmering in the first countries of asylum: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. “They are not turning people away but they are incapable of caring for everyone: the food programs are out of money,” Alboim said. “That’s the powder keg. That’s not getting so much attention as Europe.”

And while it’s important to make the economic and security arguments for helping refugees, we need to respond emotionally, too, Hansen said, and be prepared to help all refugees, not just those who might prove economically useful. “What’s often forgotten about the Holocaust is that a majority of those who died in the ovens were old: the young, the wealthy, the connected, got out. If we don’t have an international system and commitment, the people nobody wants for their merits will suffer.”

One audience member raised the question of why Canadian taxpayers should support refugees. Said Hansen: “Why support a refugee? Because you, my friend, might be one, someday.”

Read U of T President Meric Gertler’s statement on the refugee crisis in Syria.