Is the Government of Canada doing enough to help Syrian refugees? A conversation with Sharryn Aiken
Adnan Subzwari (AS): I wanted to start by dealing with some definitions. There has been a heated debate about labels–whether this is a Syrian migrant crisis or a refugee crisis. Could you explain the difference between a refugee, a migrant, and an asylum seeker?
Sharryn Aiken (SA): Both refugee and asylum seeker have specific meanings in law, especially in international law. The word migrant less so, it’s more of a catch-all word.
Let’s start with migrant: it’s a very generic term that tends to be applied in popular discourse to people who have chosen to move often for economic reasons across borders in search of better economic futures. With the word migrants, you will often see references to the term illegal migrants, irregular migrants, or undocumented migrants—all of which connotes a degree of negativity and lumps migrants with something bad.
On the other hand, refugees are people who have been recognized as people with a well-founded fear of persecution and have been confirmed as a refugee through a refugee status determination procedure by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) or by a state that shows that they have a legal status and gives them rights.
An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking refugee status. With reference to the outflow of refugees from Syria, I would clearly use the word refugee, and I would underscore the point that you are a refugee the moment you cross a border because of fear of persecution or a fear of human rights violations. I think calling the people fleeing from Syria migrants is completely a misnomer.
AS: Stephen Harper recently stated that Canada is “the largest per capita refugee receiver in the world.” Is that true?
SA: The Canadian government in 2013 committed to resettling 1,300 Syrian refugees from abroad by the end of 2014, which it met a few months late in March of this year. In January, the government pledged to resettle another 10,000 over three years.
An additional pledge to resettle an additional 10,000 Syrians has been mentioned during the election campaign. Canada’s commitment to help 10,000 Syrians does not correspond with any growth in our overall resettlement program (remember: Canada’s resettlement objectives haven’t changed over the past 5 years).
So all the government has said is that a certain number of Canada’s existing resettlement spots will now be reserved for Syrians.
This means that faced with 4 million Syrian refugees and 20 million refugees globally, Canada has committed to creating zero new resettlement spaces. The government has very egregiously skewed the data and in fact Canada is no longer a leader in its contributions to the global refugee crisis, either in terms of the number of contributions to the UNHCR or the number that we settle in Canada, and we have actually lost ground steadily over the last ten years.
AS: The Liberals have committed to take in 25,000 refugees if they are elected and the NDP have promised to settle 10,000 refugees by the end of this year. And this issue has generally focused on throwing out numbers. Is it really a simple question of placing bids on the number of refugees we want to take in, or is it more complex than that?
SA: Well it’s both. I think there’s no question that we should be stepping up, as we have in the past in other critical junctures—whether we’re looking at Canada’s response to the Vietnamese boat crisis, to the crisis in Uganda, [or] to, more recently, our evacuation of ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo in the late 1990s.
All of those are examples of Canada stepping up and playing a leadership role, often not using the regular asylum system but emergency special measures to respond more swiftly.
So we could be doing a lot more right now. In terms of Canada’s overall commitment to refugee settlement, my view is that we should be taking a hard look at measures that were introduced in 2012 that have proven to be a very serious roadblock to private sponsorship. And this is because there’s a requirement since 2012 that in order to sponsor someone they have to be formally recognized as a refugee by the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) or other states before they can be processed as a privately sponsored refugee.
And that’s a problem, because it takes a very long time to gain that recognition depending on where in the world you are.
It takes three to five years out of Turkey—it may take less if you happen to be in Lebanon. But the point is it means that you join a very long queue. In the past (prior to 2012) it was sufficient to simply have your documents in order and then be interviewed by the visa officer who would verify that you did indeed meet the requirement of humanitarian need. Then your application could be processed.
But that is no longer the case. So there’s a really major bureaucratic hurdle that has impeded the ability of private sponsors to bring people to Canada, and we need policy change to remove that hurdle. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is complicated, but it’s not just a matter of an edict. We need to take a hard look at Canada’s legislative framework and how it is impeding our contribution to the global refugee problem.
AS: How much of this problem can be laid on the adequacy of the international legal framework. There is the UN Refugee Convention that Canada has signed on to, but is that satisfactory?
SA: There are all kinds of ways in which the legal tools could be improved upon. But in my view, and certainly in the view of many others, the limitations are not the legal tools or the legal frameworks. The limitations relate to the political will of the governments and states. The problem is that the governments of the world are shirking their responsibilities under that legal framework.
Let me give you a concrete example: Canada has signed and ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and we’ve implemented it into domestic law. [That means] every asylum seeker that shows up in Canada receives a fair hearing to determine their status, subject to any concerns about criminality or security. So unless there’s criminal or security concerns, you have access to a refugee hearing. But we do our very best to ensure that refugees don’t arrive in Canada.
When the civil war was at its peak in Sri Lanka, and when refugees were being recognized at a rate of at least 90% by the immigration and refugee board—what did we do? We sent Canadian officials to Thailand to help the Thai asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka so that they did not come to Canada.
It’s just an example in which Canada—along with other governments—were paying lip service to their legal obligations but shirking [their obligations] behind the scenes. Sure, the legal tools could be better, but the problems that we’re facing are not because of the legal framework per se: it’s a lack of political will.
AS: How much of this lack of political will is influenced by recurring political narratives? In the United Kingdom, for example, immigration has been a hot button issue for years now. Even in Canada, the Harper government has been toughening up immigration law, most recently with Bill C-24. Does the anti-immigration narrative handicap the politicians’ response to this crisis?
SA: Interestingly, I think that the anti-immigrant discourse has been quite “successful” with the political elite in Canada—until about right now. Harper’s agenda, which has been […] friendly to economic immigrants, [but] most unfriendly to anybody else—especially refugees—seems to be getting quite a bit of sway.
So in the last election campaign for example, you had the NDP and Liberals supporting many of the government’s measures: cracking down on illegals and retooling the refugee determination system in ways that were not progressive. But it took the photo of the Syrian boy on the beach going viral to suddenly and dramatically impact both the political elite and ordinary Canadians, and we finally see some movement.
Because as critical as I am of the existing government, I think it is fair to say that if you take a look at the government that immediately preceded it (under Paul Martin, and even Jean Chrétien before that) it’s not as if it was a golden era for refugees in Canada. There were certainly moments of Canada really stepping up and really committing resources to settlement programs. But just a couple of years earlier when there was an ongoing and very severe crisis in the DRC, the Liberal government did nothing, relatively speaking. So Harper’s anti-refugee discourse and policy is not something that he has invented. It is a neo-Liberal policy that has been fairly entrenched in Canadian policy circles since the 1980s and has just been on a trajectory of decline.
AS: Finally, Stephen Harper was asked recently about the criticism that Canada is not doing enough, and his response was: “Well, what is enough?”, as if implying that there are always going to be refugees and that this is a never-ending problem and we can never satisfy it.
SA: I would love to say that there will be a day that there will be no more refugees, but that would be like saying that I would love for there to be a day where there will be no more war or when there’s peace everywhere. But crises break out and more people become refugees. There will always be a need for a refugee program both internationally and within individual countries so long as the world continues to be plagued by war and human rights violations. And a refugee program is a critical part of responding to those problems. It doesn’t address the root causes, and I think that we need to work on the root causes. This includes redressing global poverty, redressing economic inequality, and redressing the root causes of other forms of inequality that are often the breeding grounds for human rights violations.
But we must never abandon refugees at the expense of a singular focus on root causes because that would be to say that human beings don’t matter. I think at the end of the day, if we don’t appreciate our common humanity and the common bonds that we have with everyone around the world, there is very little hope for us as a planet.
Update: Since the recording of this interview, the Conservative Party has committed to speeding up the application process for Syrian refugees.