Canada’s Syrian refugee debacle highlights broader anti-refugee policies


For decades, Canada’s will to assist refugees and offer safe haven to people in need of refugee protection from all over the world enhanced the country’s image as a humanitarian leader. In 1986, the UN Nansen Refugee Award went to the people of Canada,[i] the only country to have received the award as a nation. Thirty years later, Canada can only dream of such an honour once again. Long gone are the days when “Canada” went hand in hand with “humanitarian,” “diplomatic,” “non-interventionist” and “environmentalist.” Canadians need a reality check.

According to Geraldine Sadoway and Andrew Brouwer, two refugee lawyers in Toronto, “Canada has been closing every possible avenue of access for refugees,”[ii] often in concert with other wealthy OECD countries. Canada’s actions have been both quiet and systematic, they explain, driving asylum seekers “into the hands of smugglers who are reaping profits at the expense of the lives of desperate people.”[iii]

Ottawa, it appears, has kept busy ensuring Canada becomes less and less a destination for refugees and asylum seekers. Our government has been imposing visa requirements, as well as sanctioning airlines and shipping lines that bring in people without satisfactory documentation.  It has also been penalizing people who assist refugees to reach Canada, denying refugees the opportunity to bring family into the country with them, restricting refugee seekers to enter Canada through the United States, and increasing the number of administrative control points a refugee must pass through in order to enter the country.[iv]

The numbers speak for themselves. The number of people claiming refugee status in Canada reached a “historic low”[v] of 10,356 in 2013,[vi] according to Ottawa — less than half the average of previous years. To help illustrate the degree of Canada’s anti-refugee measures, immigration reporter Nicholas Keung compared our country to Sweden,[vii] a fellow OECD member of 9.6 million people. While in 2014, Canada received 13,500 asylum claims—about one-third more than the year before—the small Nordic country admitted 75,100 refugees in the same period; roughly five times more asylum claims than Canada, despite the fact that Sweden has a quarter of Canada’s population and a fraction of its landmass.

Bribing refugees to abandon their claims

One controversial government program in particular, the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration program (AVRR),[viii] has proven to be inefficient at landing refugees, but highly successful at getting failed refugee claimants out of the country. Since 2012, Ottawa has spent a total of $7.5 million[ix] out of a $31.9 million budget on AVRR,[x] a pilot program that literally pays would-be refugees to leave the country. According to federal statistics, more than 3,600 people have been paid to abandon their refugee claims and leave. Most of these refugee claimants are Roma from Central and Eastern Europe.[xi]

Meanwhile, Canada’s commitment to assist the two largest refugee populations in the world, Palestinians and Syrians respectively, has been subject to mounting criticism. In 2007, Canada gave $32.4 million[xii] to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), or 11 percent of the agency’s total revenue.[xiii] In 2012, Canada cut its contribution to a mere $15 million, less than half of what it gave five years before. Since 2013, Ottawa provides no revenue whatsoever to UNRWA, and there is no sign it will donate anytime soon.[xiv]

Canada’s new “low” with Syrian refugees

While Canada’s assistance to Palestinian refugees ceased, its response to Syria’s humanitarian and refugee crisis resulting from the ongoing civil war pales in comparison to what it did in previous international humanitarian crises. To date, the Canadian government has committed more than $700 million to respond to the Syrian crisis,[xv] a considerable figure, and yet half the $1.4 billion it provided to Haiti since 2006.[xvi] Worse, war-ravaged Syria received only $110 million in 2014, considerably less than what Canada’s largest aid recipients got the same year—Ethiopia ($186 million), Tanzania ($180 million), and Mozambique ($133 million).[xvii]

Until recently, Ottawa was heavily criticized for failing to meet an earlier commitment to resettle 1,300 Syrians by the end of 2014, following an appeal by the United Nations Refugee Agency to resettle 100,000 refugees worldwide.[xviii] Canada has now committed to resettling 10,000 more Syrian refugees over the next three years,[xix] but many question Canada’s resolve. Between 1975 and 1985, Canada accepted 110,000 Indochinese refugees,[xx] eleven times the amount Ottawa has assigned for Syrians. Today, in a very controversial manner, Ottawa fails to prioritize Syrian refugees whose families are already in Canada. In addition, in a highly controversial move, the government said it will “prioritize” Syrian refugees based on ethnic and religious grounds,[xxi] a move that clearly disfavours Syrian Muslims, who make up over 85 per cent of the population.[xxii]

Needing a new approach to conflict and refugees

Some may argue that Western countries don’t have the capacity to accommodate the refugee problems of the world.  If this is so, perhaps Canada needs to rethink its approach to conflict and civil rights around the world.  Turning an uncritical eye to “friendly” authoritarian governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia does not help the situation.  Nor does increased involvement in the international arms trade.  Reducing or dropping our humanitarian commitments – as mentioned above for Syria and Palestine – exacerbates the situation too.  And while dropping bombs from airplanes as part of an international “coalition” may satisfy a “just do something” need, it is counterproductive to unravelling complex and long-standing socio-political issues. 

Bottom line: many of Ottawa’s actions and policies towards refugees and asylum seekers are unethical and mean-spirited. As a leading OECD country, Canada must rethink its policies around the world and offer safe haven to people in need of refugee protection. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” the saying goes.  If indeed our Canadian government is serious about helping the most destitute of the world, let it set a new path.

[i] “Canada should welcome Syrian refugees.” Ottawa Citizen. 29 June 2014. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[ii] “Opinion: Canada is failing in its responsibilities to refugees.” Montreal Gazette. 1 May 2015. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Refugee claims hit ‘historic low’ as Ottawa’s policy faces fresh criticism.” The Globe and Mail. 22 January 2014. Last Updated 23 January 2014. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[vi] “Canada’s refugee acceptance rate up despite asylum restrictions.” The Toronto Star. 1 March 2015. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[vii] “Global asylum claims rise 45%, but Canada lags in receiving refugees.” The Toronto Star. 26 March 2015. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[viii] “Ottawa to end contentious refugee return program.” The Toronto Star. 22 January 2015. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[ix] “Canada pays thousands of Roma to abandon refugee appeals, leave country.” Global News. 5 November 2015. 1 June 2015.

[x] “Ottawa to end contentious refugee return program.” The Toronto Star. 22 January 2015. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[xi] “Canada pays thousands of Roma to abandon refugee appeals, leave country.” Global News. 5 November 2015. 1 June 2015.

[xii] “Canada’s Defunding of UNRWA’s Core Programs.” Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). Factsheet Series No. 125. June 2011. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[xiii] “Reversing the Poles: How the Pro-Israeli Policy of Canada’s Conservative Government May Be Moving Jewish Voters from Left to Right.” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 13 April 2012. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[xiv] “Canada must renew support for Palestinian refugees.” The Toronto Star. 19 January 2015. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[xv] “Canada’s response to the situation in Syria.” Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[xvi] “Haiti.” Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[xvii] “Canada’s Foreign Aid.” Canadian International Development Platform. Last Accessed 1 Junes 2015.

[xviii] “UNHCR counting on Canada to increase commitment to Syrian refugees.” The Globe and Mail. 9 December 2014. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

[xix] “Canada to resettle 10,000 more Syrian refugees over 3 years.” CBC. 7 January 2015. 1 June 2015.

[xx] “Canada falling behind on promise to Syria's refugees.” CBC. 10 March 2014. Last Accessed 3 June 2015.

[xxi] “ Canada to resettle 10,000 more Syrian refugees over 3 years.” CBC. 7 January 2015. 1 June 2015.

[xxii] “Syria.” Central Intelligence Agency: The World Fact Book. Last Accessed 1 June 2015.

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