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Canada isn't pulling its weight to help Syrian refugees

You didn't have to wait long following the publication of our Sept. 9 story about a Whitehorse woman's efforts to work towards relocating at least one family of Syrian refugees to the territory before the invariable push-back began.

You didn’t have to wait long following the publication of our Sept. 9 story about a Whitehorse woman’s efforts to work towards relocating at least one family of Syrian refugees to the territory before the invariable push-back began.

First, a bit of context. Syrians are caught between a genocidal tyrant whose airforce has reduced cities to rubble with crude barrel bombs and has deployed chemical warfare on his own citizens, and the bloodthirsty psychopaths with the Islamic State. As a result, more than four million Syrians have fled their country. That’s one-sixth of Syria’s population.

Syrians now make up the largest refugee population on Earth, and Europe faces its biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Faced with the proposition of raising money to help at least one of these families relocate to the Yukon, some residents are shamefully saying “no.” Let’s start by calling this what it is: priggish xenophobia.

Others offer a more sophisticated answer that amounts to the same thing. They begin with a bit of throat-clearing, about how it’s terrible that Syrian children are drowning and all, so don’t think they’re cold-hearted. It’s just that we must be responsible. If we opened Canada’s floodgates to refugees, our country would be soon overwhelmed. And, after all, we are already doing our fair share.

The only trouble with this line of thinking? None of it is true, if past experience tells us anything at all.

As Doug Saunders recently noted in the Globe and Mail, we heard these same arguments during the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956 and the Vietnamese refugee crisis of 1979. Then, as now, some fretted about the potential of letting in violent extremists. Then, as now, our country dithered and foot-dragged until the looming humanitarian crisis became too difficult to ignore. Then, as now, we were told that the torrent of refugees would be never-ending.

Eventually Canada agreed to rescue and resettle 37,000 Hungarians and 60,000 Vietnamese. The sky, in case you haven’t noticed, did not fall then. Canada’s cultural fabric was not irreparably harmed. Foreign-born communists did not terrorize the public. And it turns out that the flood of refugees did not, as critics continue to assert, prove to be never-ending, but instead surprisingly short-lived.

This is equally the case when Canada decided to let in tens of thousands of Bosnians. And Sri Lankans. And Ugandans. And Chileans. And Greeks. And Somalis. And on the list goes.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have made a habit of falsely asserting that Canada has one of the world’s most generous policies towards accepting refugees. This is quite simply untrue.

As Tristin Hopper recently noted in the National Post, Canada does let in a high number of resettled refugees - that is, those who are moving from an asylum country to a permanent home. In 2013, we let in 12,173, second only to the United States, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But when it comes to total refugees, which is surely the relevant measure of things, the agency ranks Canada 41st globally on a per capita basis, or 55th based on the size of our economy.

Harper has suggested that the only alternative to our current, miserly approach to the Syria crisis is to let in “millions” of refugees. In truth, nobody is calling for this. But we could be doing far more than what the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP all propose.

Harper has promised to take in another 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq by 2019. That’s on top of an earlier promise to take in 11,300 Syrians and 23,000 Iraqis. The NDP’s Thomas Muclair wants accept another 10,000 Syrians immediately, and another 9,000 every year until 2019. And the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau wants to let in an extra 25,000 Syrians this year.

Scott Gilmore at Maclean’s has made a compelling case that Canada could take in far more. How many? Try 200,000 Syrians within a year. As things stand, we spend just one-tenth of one per cent of the federal budget on helping refugees. Boosting this number twenty-fold would mean that Canada is at least contributing one-quarter as much as Germany.

This would cost an additional $2.2 billion per year. That works out to $63 per Canadian. Or, put another way, it’s the same price as a few of the boutique tax credits that voters are currently being bribed with this federal election.

The government needn’t put up all the money itself. Gilmore suggests it could pledge to match whatever the public spends, up to $1.1 billion. “This would cut the cost in half and force Canadians to put up or shut up. When this approach has been used in the past, to address an overseas natural disaster for example, the public has been extremely generous. We might surprise ourselves.”

Beyond increasing Canada’s refugee quota, our country also needs to make it much easier for Syrian refugees to enter the country. During past crises, the government has helped coordinate between refugees and sponsors. Refugee advocates say that isn’t happening now. And a change introduced in 2012 ended up making it much harder for Syrians to enter Canada, by requiring privately sponsored refugees to first be vetted by the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Only a small fraction of Syrian refugees have gone through this screening process. Among the Syrian families who hoped to receive entry to Canada but instead ending up hitting this wall was the family of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who put a human face to this humanitarian disaster when his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish shore.

In short, we’ve done far more during similar crises. We could do far more now. All that’s lacking is political will. With the federal election campaign underway, now is the time to impress upon our candidates that there is public support for a swift, dramatic response.

And for those those interested in helping Raquel de Queiroz with her own push to ensure the Yukon does its part to help with the humanitarian crisis, more information can be found at