Seventeen-year old Yazan Al-Ali who desperately wants to reunite with his family here in Canada because family name is red-flagged by the Syrian regime and he lives in fear. Credit: Provided

The lethal crisis of closed borders and xenophobic immigration policies made an increasingly rare media appearance last week when 27 desperate refugees attempting to cross the English Channel drowned. Since 2014, at least 166 asylum seekers have lost their lives making that perilous journey; almost 23,000 have been killed or reported missing crossing the Mediterranean during the same time period.

The inhumane lengths to which many nations will go to prevent migration was documented this week in The New Yorker, which reported that the European Union:

“has created a shadow immigration system that captures [migrants] before they reach its shores, and sends them to brutal Libyan detention centers run by militias… It has equipped and trained the Libyan Coast Guard, a quasi-military organization linked to militias in the country, to patrol the Mediterranean, sabotaging humanitarian rescue operations and capturing migrants. The migrants are then detained indefinitely in a network of profit-making prisons run by the militias. In September of this year, around six thousand migrants were being held… International aid agencies have documented an array of abuses: detainees tortured with electric shocks, children raped by guards, families extorted for ransom, men and women sold into forced labor.”

Meanwhile, the world’s single largest refugee population has gone from being a headline story to yesterday’s news, a magical transformation that has disappeared almost 14 million forcibly displaced Syrians. The United Nations reports that this population is almost evenly divided between those who sought asylum abroad and the millions of internally displaced people who continue to face mass hunger, homelessness and continued political repression.

Conditions for the millions who were able to get out of Syria – the majority of them in Turkey – remain poor. In Lebanon, 90 per cent of Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty, and with no official refugee camps, most are scattered throughout the country – crammed into small, over-crowded lodgings that leave them vulnerable to COVID-19.

The situation inside Syria remains dire. Human Rights Watch reports a widespread “inability to procure food, essential drugs, and other basic necessities. As a result, more than 9.3 million Syrians have become food insecure and over 80 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line.”

The group added that on top of these deteriorating conditions, “human rights abuses in government-held territory continued unabated. Authorities brutally suppressed every sign of re-emerging dissent, including through arbitrary arrests and torture.”

Mass disappearances

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), at least 100,000 Syrians remain forcibly disappeared. The network also estimates that nearly 15,000 have died due to torture since March 2011, the majority at the hands of Syrian government forces.

It’s a human rights catastrophe that has been mislabeled a “refugee crisis,” as if those escaping persecution and desperate conditions are the root problem. In fact, the crisis results from interconnected decisions of wealthy nations like Canada. On the one hand, governmental and corporate policies give rise to a “Canada Brand” of overseas violence, repression, and displacement. On the other, Canadian policies of interdiction abroad (stationing officers in scores of countries to prevent refugees from escaping and getting here) and deadly agreements like Safe Third Country (which allows for forced return of asylum seekers from the Canadian border to the U.S. on the outrageous claim that it is a safe country for refugees) make it impossible for far too many to find safety.

It is the anti-refugee sentiment within Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that leads directly to findings by CBC that Canada is nowhere near hitting its refugee intake goals for 2021. One cannot blame COVID here; it is a result of systems that have been created and sustained for decades in which Canada favours business-class immigrants over torture survivors and long-separated loved ones. Indeed, IRCC’s own online processing times calculator reveals an average six-month waiting period for economic immigration applicants, whereas a privately sponsored refugee desperate to get out of Uganda faces an average delay of 34 months.

While refugees were briefly mentioned during the 2021 pandemic election, it was largely in response to the capture of Kabul by the Taliban and Canada’s long-term, decade-long failure to provide safety for interpreters, fixers, drivers and others who assisted the Canadian military during its occupation of Afghanistan. It was a far-cry from 2015, when the “sunny ways” Liberals took advantage of a mean-spirited Harper regime and a photo that went around the globe.

Six years after Operation Syrian Refugees

Indeed, it’s been six years since the world was transfixed by the heart-wrenching image of the lifeless, three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach. In many ways, it became a touchstone issue for the 2015 federal election, with the Trudeau Liberals promising to welcome tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Operation Syrian Refugees helped resettle 25,000 asylum seekers in the space of 100 days, and while the bulk of this work was undertaken by hard-working community members and civil society organizations, it did represent a perfect example of how humanitarian action can be enacted when the political will is there to see it through.

Last December, Trudeau looked back on that initiative by recalling how “we opened our arms and our hearts to people and families fleeing conflict, insecurity, and persecution.”

Trudeau called on Canada and its international partners to “find ways to continue to protect refugees fleeing war or violence.”

While Trudeau’s sentiment is a welcome one, it needs to find life in creative solutions to overcoming the barriers faced by those fleeing such war and violence.

One such person who desperately needs to join his family in Canada is 17-year old Yazan Al-Ali. This Syrian boy is afraid to turn 18, because that’s when the murderous Assad regime will come to claim him for its blood-stained military. His refusal to be forcibly conscripted into an atrocities-tainted army will mark him for jail, torture or death. With most of his family in Canada – including a father who is awaiting adjudication of his own refugee claim – he needs an urgent Temporary Resident Permit to escape a regime condemned by Canada for its “brutal and shocking attacks on its own people.” 

Yazan is all alone right now, hiding in Syria, as his step-mother passed away in October, 2021. His older brothers all escaped and sought asylum because they too refused to be part of the brutal Assad military. Syrian military intelligence are searching for Yazan’s father, both because he helped his other sons escape the military and because he has claimed refugee status in Canada, an act viewed by the Syrian regime as treasonous.

As a result, Yazan’s family name is red-flagged by the regime, and there is great risk of 17-year-old Yazan being targeted as a means of punishing those who have left. As a young man on his own, Yazan is also at much greater risk of sexual violence by Syrian government forces. (In March 2018, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (the Syria COI) published a report with detailed evidence on sexual violence against men and boys in Syria.)

Lives like death

Yazan’s step-siblings and extended family live a very successful life in Canada. They have the resources to welcome, support and resettle Yazan when he receives the required permission to enter Canada. But Immigration Minister Sean Fraser must act quickly, as Yazan turns 18 in less than six weeks.

Despite the recent window-dressing elections of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, conditions have not improved whatsoever for the majority of the population. In October 2021, Human Rights Watch published a stomach-turning report, Our Lives are Like Death, which detailed the horrific mistreatment of refugees who voluntarily returned to Syria from Lebanon and Jordan.

The report notes that conditions in host countries have become so severe that growing numbers are willing to try a return to Syria, despite their fears of what awaits them. Human Rights Watch found:

“returnees face many of the same violations that caused their flight from Syria. These include persecution and abuses, such as arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture, extra-judicial killings, kidnappings, and widespread bribery and extortion, at the hands of the Syrian security agencies and government-affiliated militias.”

On December 10 (which is also International Human Rights Day), Trudeau will no doubt issue a self-congratulatory message marking the sixth anniversary of Operation Syrian Refugees.

His government can actually provide some meaning to those fine words by committing to opening the door to far more refugees from Syria and other countries as well. A good start on the path would be granting Yazan Al-Ali a temporary resident permit to allow him to come to Canada for his own protection.

Photo of Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.