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Refugees: What will you do?

Newspapers have been full of confusing numbers about Syrian and Iraqi refugees in recent weeks. Back in January, the federal government announced Canada would take 13,000 additional refugees.

Newspapers have been full of confusing numbers about Syrian and Iraqi refugees in recent weeks.

Back in January, the federal government announced Canada would take 13,000 additional refugees. This was on top of some 20,000 Iraqi refugees taken since 2009 and a previous 2480 Syrians given asylum and resettlement since the Syrian civil war started back in 2011.

Prime Minister Harper announced last month that Canada would take another 10,000 over the next four years. The opposition parties have called for more. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau recently called for 25,000 by the end of the year, and NDP leader Tom Mulcair talked about another 10,000.

By the time this column makes it to press, it is likely some leaders will have raised the ante further.

But put even the most generous of these numbers in perspective. Syria and Iraq had a combined population of about 60 million before this ghastly war swept across them. No one knows how many people have fled their homes, but estimates earlier this year by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs put the figure at nearly fifteen million. That includes three million in Iraq, four million who have fled Syria, and another eight million displaced internally in Syria by the fighting.

Fifteen million people.

Ten or twenty-five thousand is a fraction of a percent of the people facing humanitarian catastrophe.

The conflict in the region is a particularly nasty kind of war. Start with ethnic and linguistic divisions between Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and a dozen others. Then add a second layer of religious discord between Sunni, Shia, Christian and other faiths. Finally, add a third dimension of geopolitics as outside states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Russia and the United States pursue their own interests. The governments of Syria and Iraq have lost control, and much of the fighting is being done by bands of warlords backed to various extents by foreign powers. Islamic State, or IS, is only the most notorious of these.

This war is more like the Thirty Years War in Germany than other conflicts we have seen recently in other parts of the world. Remember that, as its name suggests, that war lasted three decades and when it was finished the population of the German states was about one-third less than it had been before. Don’t think of photos of French refugees marching along highways in 1940. It is more like Game of Thrones with machine guns and heavy artillery.

The BBC story last week that IS is using mustard-gas style chemical weapons makes the situation even more horrible.

This war could take years to play out. The bombing raids by Canada and the Western powers will kill some IS commanders and grind down their military capacity. They may hasten the defeat of IS, but are unlikely to be decisive.

The refugee issue will be with us for a long time.

Which raises the question of what to do. Deutsche Welle reported that German Interior Minister de Maiziere expects up to 800,000 people to request asylum in Germany by the end of the year.

If Canada took a number proportionate to its population, that would work out to 350,000. For the Yukon, it would mean accepting 350 Syrian and Iraqi refugees by the end of the year.

I haven’t heard any of our politicians talking about such numbers.

On the financial side, the Department of Foreign Affairs says that, as of July this year, Canada had given around $500 million in humanitarian assistance since the beginning of the Syrian war. Plus over $100 million of assistance in Iraq since the beginning of 2014.

These numbers sound big. But divide them by millions of people and spread them out over 52 weeks in a year, and they are sadly a drop in the bucket.

The election campaign has candidates promising to do more. But I haven’t heard anyone say the word “billions” yet, other than Minister de Maziere in Berlin. The German federal government plans to transfer 3 billion euros (about $4.5 billion) to the state and local governments to help them support refugees, and plans to spend a similar amount itself.

Adjusted for the exchange rate and Canada’s population, a similar figure would work out to about $4 billion.

I’ll leave it up to you to ask why it has taken until September 2015 for this humanitarian crisis to get to the top of the Canadian political agenda, or why none of our political parties have covered themselves in glory on either refugee or financial commitments. The current attention the conflict is getting will prompt the next government, whoever it is, to boost Canada’s contributions incrementally.

But I don’t think any of them will make commitments of a scale that Germans, or other countries with strong humanitarian heritages such as Sweden, would consider generous.

Which leaves it up to you. The federal government hurriedly announced a $100 million matching program. That works out to $3 per Canadian. If you’re looking for the chance to be ten, a hundred or even a thousand times more generous than average, this is it.

I suggest you check out one of the respected agencies active in the area, such as Medecins San Frontieres, the Red Cross, the World Food Program or UNICEF, and make a donation.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show.