Image: Flickr/SyriaFreedom

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The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that there are over nine million Syrian refugees, and that their situation grows more desperate every day.

Six million of these refugees are what the UNHCR calls internally displaced people (IDPs), people who have sought whatever refuge they can within Syria itself.

Of the remaining three million plus, most are in neighbouring countries.

They are either in UNHCR camps, in informal camps, or in precarious, makeshift dwellings among the host country’s population.

There are over 130,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, over 200,000 in war-torn Iraq, over 500,000 in Jordan, close to 600,000 in Turkey, and over a million in Lebanon.

Outside of Syria’s immediate neighbourhood, Germany and Sweden have taken in the largest number: 30,000 and 25,000 respectively.

As for the rest of the world, there are over 11,000 Syrian refugees in Armenia, over 5,000 in the United States, over 4,000 in Austria and Bulgaria and more than 3,000 in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark.

In Canada there are slightly more than 1,000 Syrian refugees, of whom nearly 600 have achieved refugee status. The remaining 400 plus are asylum seekers. In other words, they are still in the refugee process.

The numbers game over Canada’s pledge and the food crisis

Canada pledged to resettle 1,300 refugees from UNHCR camps. But of the 1000 plus Syrian refugees in Canada fewer that four hundred are in that resettled group. The rest came to Canada on their own and sought refugee status at the border.

That means Canada is more than nine hundred refugees short of its pledge to resettle 1,300 by the end of 2014, and will almost certainly not respect its commitment.

What makes the Syrian refugee situation particularly bad right now is the fact that, for lack of funds, the World Food Program has been forced to suspend its food voucher program for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the Middle East.

The UNHCR and the Food Program are making urgent pleas for immediate financial support from the world community. The UNHCR’s Canadian office has an ongoing fundraising campaign to support Syrian refugees. 

Canadian Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has been maddeningly evasive in answering questions from the opposition about Syrian refugees.

When asked in the House to provide accurate figures, he uses numbers in a deliberately confusing way. He conflates asylum seekers who have come to Canada on their own with resettled refugees. In that way, the Minister tries to give the (false) impression that Canada is close to achieving its 1,300 target.

Ironically, at other times, Alexander makes an emphatic point of distinguishing between ‘asylum seekers’ and those he considers to be ‘real refugees,’ the resettled kind. He tends to portray the latter as legitimate — and even desirable. The former, in Alexander’s strange worldview, are somehow suspect.

Whenever NDP and Liberal MPs ask the Immigration Minister about those large German and Swedish Syrian refugee numbers he accuses them of confusing apples with oranges. The opposition misses the point, Alexander loudly declaims. Most of the Syrian refugees in Germany and Sweden, he explains, are, in fact, ‘suspicious’ asylum seekers, not the good ‘resettled’ kind that Canada wants.

It is a distinction without a real difference, in fact.

In the eyes of Canadian law, and the international Convention on Refugees on which it is based,  resettled refugees and asylum seekers are both equally refugees, end of story. One kind is not in any way more legitimate than the other.

This phony distinction is, however, a key rhetorical weapon for Chris Alexander, when it suits his purpose. When, on the other hand, it suits his purpose to put both kinds of refugee into the same basket, well, that previously crucial distinction then becomes — presto! — entirely irrelevant.

The UNHCR tells countries such as Canada what they can do

Tragically, this Canadian argument over a rather small number is a trivial matter compared to the scope of the crisis.

In Berlin, at the end of October, the head of the UNHCR (the High Commissioner), Antonio Guterres, spoke about the disproportionate burden Syria’s neighbours (the refugee ‘host countries’) are bearing, and the need for other countries to step up and do more.

“The situation is becoming more and more difficult for the host countries,” said Guterres. “At a time when we are facing a high risk of a deterioration in the protection space for Syrian refugees in the region, massive and concrete support must be provided to Syria’s neighbours so as to prevent a humanitarian disaster.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees then outlined what that concrete support would mean:

“There is a need for much stronger commitment to burden-sharing by other countries, allowing Syrian refugees to find protection beyond the immediate neighbouring region. This can be done through resettlement, humanitarian admission schemes, simplified family reunification or more flexible visa regulations.”

That was a direct plea to countries such as Canada to find ways to let in and resettle many more than the handful of Syrians we have taken in so far.

The High Commissioner did not leave it to anyone’s imagination. He mentioned a number of ways of relieving the refugee pressure in Syria’s immediate neighbourhood which Canada and other countries could use. And his list went far beyond Chris Alexander’s favourite nostrum: handpicking a very few ‘deserving’ refugees from UNHCR camps (and then, perhaps, forgetting to actually resettle them).

The High Commissioner’s list includes letting folks join family already in Canada; making it easier for Syrians to get visas to come to Canada on their own; and allowing Syrians into Canada not only under the strict controls of Canada’s refugee system, but under the more generous rules of humanitarian admission.

When it comes to the fate of the Middle East, as a region, the Harper government is almost exclusively focused on the muscular, hard, military dimension.

The softer stuff, such as humanitarian aid and refugees, does not seem to interest the Harper folks, even though Canada could probably make a more useful contribution working on the “soft” side than by dropping a few bombs. The Canadian government will not even share any significant information on what impact, if any, those bombs are having.

Emphasizing the military dovetails with Prime Minister Harper’s self-constructed image of Canada as a “courageous warrior.”

But if you listen to people such as Guterres, the story they tell is that the intractable problems of the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, require much more than a token military effort. Indeed, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says the region’s challenges require much more than even a conventional humanitarian response.

Here’s how Antonio Guterres put it just a little more than a month ago:

“We must stop seeing the Syria situation as merely a humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian response alone is utterly insufficient. We must establish a solid link between the humanitarian, resilience and development dimensions.”


Image: Flickr/SyriaFreedom

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...