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Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Minister John McCallum's announcement that the Canadian government will be modifying its initial promise to accept 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 and will be excluding single men who are not part of families or persecuted LGBTQ groups has been criticized by opposition party leaders, non-government organizations, and academics.
While NDP Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship critic Jenny Kwan, Canadian Council for Refugees' (CCR) Janet Dench, and University of Toronto PhD student Kiran Banerjee emphasize that Canada's Syrian refugee initiative is laudable in its scope and ambition, they have many questions for McCallum.
Private versus government-assisted refugees
While Kwan does not take issue with the government's decision to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 2016 rather than at the end of 2015, as promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2015 federal election campaign, she is concerned that this number now also includes privately sponsored refugees.
Whereas privately sponsored refugees enter Canada through the support of Canadian citizens, who provide them with financial and emotional support, government-assisted refugees are supported entirely by the Canadian government and are "convention-refugees" (i.e., they have been designated as refugees by international organizations such as the United Nations Refugee Agency).
Because privately sponsored refugees come at the behest of citizens, and not the government, they should not be included as part of tally of 25,000 Syrian refugees accepted by Canada.
"The commitment made during the campaign was very clear -- there will be 25,000 government-sponsored refugees in addition to private refugees. The distinction between private and government-sponsored refugees is very important. So we will be watching this closely to make sure that [the government] fulfills its promise," Kwan argues.
Banerjee adds that "it would best to push for supporting expansive, community-oriented refugee resettlement policies [we need to also] make sure to not treat this as a substitution for government resettlement."
When asked for comment, Citizenship and Immigration Canada's Remi Larivieri states, "The government is committed to resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 2016. After February 2016, additional Syrian refugees will be accepted and the government will reach its commitment to resettle a total of 25,000 government-assisted refugees."
Exclusion of vulnerable single men?
Another question Kwan raises pertains to the decision to exclude vulnerable groups of men, which she argues shows that the Canadian government is "picking and choosing refugees" and not really prioritizing the settlement of those who are most at risk.
Although Kwan recognizes the importance of robust screening procedures, particularly in the wake of the Paris attacks, the decision to exclude "an entire gender" does not make sense especially if the government's reassurances that their screening procedures are thorough is to be believed:
"If the government has reassured us that there is a robust screening process on the ground and that people are being processed accordingly, then we do not need to exclude groups of people, in this case, single men. If you proceed with this plan, how will you deal with LGBT refugees who are hesitant to disclose their sexual orientation? Because it is a very sensitive issue. What will happen to them? What will the government do to prevent the radicalization of young men who will now be left behind and who have lost both parents? Are they automatically excluded from the screening process? What about someone who has lost his wife and children? If your screening process is effective, then it should be applied to everyone."
Dench agrees with Kwan's assessment, stating that, "there is no connection between refugees and terrorism. If you look at the terrorist acts that have been committed in Canada over the last few years, they've been committed by Canadian-born people. We don't understand why people associate refugees with security risks."
Banerjee concurs. "I can only point out that no resettled refugee brought into Canada has been linked to a security threat. This would seem to suggest that current procedures are fine and that this change in policy also represents political maneuvering that doesn't really take into account the needs and vulnerabilities of refugees."
Dench believes that the Canadian government also has to take into account the vulnerabilities facing Syrians who are currently living in Syria, particularly those with family members in Canada, and who remain excluded from Canada's refugee intake.
Other issues: Transportation waivers and logistics
The transportation waivers, which give Syrian refugees free travel to Canada, is a crucial measure to decrease refugees' financial burden, but Kwan and Dench believe that these waivers should be extended to all refugees.
An additional issue pertains to logistics. Kwan, in particular, points to the need for the government to specify who will be assuming the costs of refugee settlement. Because refugees need access to safe housing and to health care, it is imperative that the government specify how these initiatives will be funded.
Speaking anonymously, a settlement service worker in Toronto affirms Kwan's assessment. Many logistical details need to be settled, including where exactly refugees will be housed both in the short and long-term and how the government will provide support for refugees, many of whom will have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nevertheless, when asked whether the refugee plan was too rushed, she said, "we can wait for things to be perfect but you can't leave people to continue being vulnerable. Bring it on, we are ready, we will do what we can. I haven't heard a single settlement services agency say hold back."
Debunking notions that Canadians are "afraid" of Syrian refugees
Kwan, Dench, and Banerjee were all quick to highlight the tremendous amount of good will different Canadians have shown towards welcoming Syrian refugees into their communities.
Kwan mentions that her office has been inundated with phone calls from hundreds of Canadians asking how they can help, whereas Dench mentions that the CCR is "overwhelmed and grateful" to hear from so many Canadians.
These responses are in marked contrast to the "politics of fear" that characterizes mainstream media's depiction of Canadian responses to the arrival of Syrian refugees.
As Banerjee notes:
"the more Canadians that have a chance to learn about the lives of others, the more willing they will be to welcome refugees into this country. There's precedence for this to be found in Canada's history -- Operation Lifeline -- the ancestor of our current LifeLine Syria -- was a citizen-driven initiative that ended up transforming a comparatively weak resettlement project into a world-recognized initiative that earned the Canadian people the UNHCR's Nansen award in 1986. Because of the mobilization of civil society -- from church groups to community organizations, and because of political leadership and support, a meager resettlement quota of 7,000 was scaled up to 60,000 refugee. And Canada has only become a stronger, more flourishing country, as a result of recognizing and performing this duty of hospitality toward those in need."
Requests for comment directed to Conservative Party Immigration Critic Michelle Rempel and Green Party MP Elizabeth May were asked for their comments were unreturned.
Ethel Tungohan is a Grant Notley Postdoctoral Research Fellow and a community activist.
Photo: flickr/ Freedom House