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Refugee crisis gives Conservatives a well-earned black eye

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Kenney and Alexander answer questions about Temporary Foreign Workers Program ch

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A few weeks ago rabble ran a story about how an economy-obsessed election campaign was ignoring other important issues, notably immigration and refugee policy.

This writer tweeted a quote from the story which said the Harper government had demonized refugees.

Current Immigration Minister Chris Alexander paid no heed to that comment; but his predecessor, Jason Kenney, tweeted in reply: "'Demonized' refugees by admitting 115,000 of them during my tenure as Minister of Immigration?"

He then added: "By maintaining the highest per capita level of refugee resettlement in the world?" And: "By increasing the Refugee Assistance Program by 10 per cent? By creating the IRB's Refugee Appeal Division for failed claimants."

It seems we had hit a sensitive nerve.

Kenney forgot to mention the cancellation of the federal health program for refugees. Even after a Federal Court judge ordered that the program be fully restored, the Harper government resisted and only very partially respected the order.

Nor did the former minister mention his own so-called refugee reform legislation, which created a two-tier system for asylum seekers through an arbitrary list of notionally safe countries.

A court has found that measure to be unconstitutional, as well.

As for the actual immigration minister, he finally decided to come out from hiding when he took part in that now-infamous panel discussion on CBC's Power and Politics.

Alexander lacks Kenney's finely tuned killer instinct, and made something of a fool of himself trying to claim Canada's indifferent reaction to the current refugee crisis was all the media's fault.

The minister is now back in Ottawa trying to figure out how his government failed to give refugee status to the family of a small boy who, with most of his family, drowned in their efforts to flee the Middle East. The family had close relatives in British Columbia, whose MP had directly appealed to Alexander to intervene on their behalf -- to no avail.

Now the Conservative minister has some questions to pose to his officials.

The truth, however, is that Alexander knows the answer to his questions. 

The answer is that, to Canada, everything connected with the Syrian conflict is a security, not a humanitarian, issue. It is almost certain that Canadian officials have been instructed to be extremely wary in qualifying any Syrians fleeing the conflagration in their country as refugees. 

The government does not want to bring in people who might have political or religious affiliations it considers to be, shall we say, dubious. That is why, at one point, the Harper government offered to accept a limited number of Christian and other non-Muslim Syrians only. To the Harper people, those would be safe refugees.

That suggestion irked the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which reminded Canada that the vast majority of Syrian refugees are, in fact, Muslims.

Media was indifferent that Harper and his team were mean to refugees

The hard truth is that the Harper government has, for a number of years, avoided a much-deserved public black eye for its consistently mean-spirited refugee policy.

Mainstream news organizations, such as The Globe and Mail, might be trenchantly critical of the Conservatives for such assaults on democracy as the Fair Elections Act, but they fawned all over Kenney when he was in charge of immigration.

They seemed to fully accept Kenney's unfair and unsubstantiated claims that his harsh measures were aimed at deterring queue-jumpers and people he called bogus refugees.

Kenney made a particular point of defending the country that is now at the centre of the European refugee crisis: Hungary.

Now that he has had the effrontery to antagonize his European neighbours, especially Germany, Hungary's right-wing, nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban is showing his true colours.

Even if the Germans are ready and willing to take in several hundred thousand African, Western Asian and Middle Eastern refugees, Orban wants to prevent them from even transiting through his self-styled Christian country.

Orban, of course, is less worried about offending other Europeans than he is about being upstaged by the Hungarian party to his immediate right, the neo-fascist Jobbik Party. The same Jobbik thugs who torment refugees departing Hungary regularly humiliate and attack Hungary's large Roma and Jewish populations.

Orban acts tough with his own minorities, and with those he characterizes as alien intruders, to mollify the Jobbik extremists, who have a considerable following, especially in the Hungarian countryside.

The Europeans, including the Germans, have known what the current Hungarian regime is all about for a while. German media, notably the wide-circulation magazine Der Spiegel, have been full of stories about Hungarian outrages, particularly with regard to the Roma.

It has long suited the Europeans' purpose to look the other way, however. The cruel truth is that Germany, France and other EU countries are not interested in welcoming hundreds of thousands of destitute and persecuted Roma from Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and other countries to its east.

And keeping the Roma out of Canada was why Kenney was so anxious to classify Hungary as safe, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

When a House of Commons committee was considering Kenney's new restrictive refugee measures, an EU diplomat testified that the Roma were, in essence, parasitic, welfare-seeking nomads. He told the Canadian parliamentarians that Roma were attracted to Canada not because it is a safe, multicultural haven, but because of generous welfare payments.

Now the Europeans are singing a different tune, and maybe, just maybe, Canada might even reconsider its classification of Hungary as safe.

The Harper government has never wanted Syrians

As for Canada's response to the world refugee crisis -- which is not restricted to the Middle East, but includes such African countries as Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan -- the Harper government says it wants to take full advantage of the generosity of Canadians through private sponsorship.

While individual and community generosity is laudable, however, only the government has the capacity to mount a coordinated national effort.

The Official Opposition NDP hopes the gravity of the current crisis might allow the Conservatives to put partisanship aside, and mount such an effort. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was careful to say that now was not the time to assign blame, but rather to seek solutions.

His party issued a news release with a number of proposals.

NDP International Development Critic Hélène Laverdière, a former diplomat, proposes that Canada bring in 10,000 Syrians by the end of this year "through appointing a Syrian Refugee Coordinator."

That official would pull "resources from various departments including Foreign Affairs, Citizenship and Immigration and other departments."

Laverdière also suggests increasing Canada's diplomatic presence in the region, removing bureaucratic obstacles to resettlement, and ending "Canada's policy of discrimination, to treat all refugees equally."

And finally she urges the government to fast-track private sponsorship and increase Canada's contributions to such agencies as the UNHCR.

Conservatives not really facilitating sponsorship

The issue of bureaucratic obstacles to private sponsorship is very real.

Groups who wish to sponsor Syrian refugees, and are ready to put their money where their mouth is, face the fact that Canadian officials in the field are loath to approve any Syrians to come to Canada. On the rare occasions when they do qualify Syrians, the officials almost always fail to take the next, necessary step: to qualify the refugees as travel-ready.

Being travel-ready means passing a health exam and, even more important, a security test.

And there's the rub.

Officials do not want to take what they see as the great risk of giving security clearance to refugees who are, in the government's eyes, potential terrorists.

And even when the government ultimately grants refugees the right to come to Canada under the auspices of private sponsorship, it insists on recovering the costs of their health exams and transport.

Now, while the Harper regime is extremely reluctant to open the door for Syrians, it has granted approvals to a far greater number of Sudanese, Eritrean and other sponsored refugees from Africa.

As a result, many sponsor groups have decided to take a parallel approach.

They will endeavour to assist one of those fast-tracked African families, who could arrive here within a matter of months.

At the same time, they will get the ball rolling on the far slower and more cumbersome process of bringing a Syrian family to Canada.

The family of the little boy who died on that Turkish beach knows all too well how slow and cumbersome that process can be.

Politically, this crisis has seemed to blindside the Harper people.

On Thursday morning the Conservatives issued an odd, laconic news release.

It said: "Minister Kenney's event today will be postponed to a later date."

And what was that event?

Here is the original release: "Hon. Jason Kenney will make an important announcement on Conservative efforts to protect the integrity of Canada's immigration system and the security of Canada."

It was not, it seems, a good day for such fear-mongering announcements.    


Photo: Kenney and Alexander answer questions about Temporary Foreign Workers Program changes in June 2014 by Miriam Katawazi

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