As the leaders of the major parties jostled this past week over the massive refugee crisis facing the world, each trying to spin things for his respective electoral advantage, there was a lot of bandying about of numbers.
Prime Minster Harper [sic] stood firmly by his plan to resettle ten thousand Syrian and Iraqi refugees over the next three years (but mostly ones who face religious persecution – a dog-whistle to his base that he’s gonna do his best to keep out teh Muslims), while continuing – nonsensically – to insist that the true solution to this crisis lies in dropping more bombs on Syria and Iraq for an indefinite amount of time.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, on the other hand, wants to accelerate the timetable for resettling refugees, offering to work with the government to bring in ten thousand by the end of this year, presumably with more to come in subsequent years.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, not wanting to be outdone, vowed to bring in twenty-five thousand refugees, although as far as I can tell, he hasn’t been willing to put a date to that figure. This year? Within four years? We just don’t know.
The common thread to all of these proposals is their timidity and sheer lack of imagination.
Let’s take a serious look at this crisis.
There are currently over fifty million refugees in the world, more than at any time since the end of the Second World War.
Some countries are literally overwhelmed by the refugee crisis. For instance, as of this year, one in five residents of Lebanon is a Syrian refugee, subsisting on meagre funding from the UN. Last month, the World Food Program, an arm of the UN, was forced to cut its food allowance for Syrian refugees in Lebanon by over 50% due to a major budget shortfall, leaving each refugee with $13.50/month.
The Lebanese state, unable to absorb such a huge influx of refugees – its population before the crisis was around four million, but has now swelled to 5.2 million – is incapable of meaningfully help the massive number of Syrians who have sought refuge within its borders, leaving over a million people in dire poverty and with no better options.
This is just one example, of refugees from one war. There are over three million refugees in sub-Saharan Africa. There are nearly that many Afghani refugees, spread throughout over eighty countries. Southeast Asia is gripped by its own refugee crisis.
And this doesn’t even begin to address the plight of internally displaced people, like the nearly one million Iraqis who have fled their homes in the last year. Eleven million people were internally displaced in the year 2014 alone – the equivalent of 30 000 per day.
Of what significance would our acceptance of ten thousand (or twenty-five thousand) refugees be, when viewed in this context?
Yes, it would matter a great deal to those people who were able to come here. But that meagre level of response quite simply doesn’t take into account the massive scale of the issue.
So let’s think bigger.
In an eighteen-month period from 1979-1980, Canada resettled 60 000 Vietnamese refugees in a process that was quick and efficient, with overwhelming public support.
Looking back much further, Upper and Lower Canada took in ninety thousand Irish refugees fleeing the famines of the 1840s, at a time when their combined populations were less than half a million.
The refugee crisis we face today is like nothing that the world has seen in a long time – so our response has to be commensurate.
Is there any good reason why we couldn’t pledge to take in half a million refugees by 2020?
One hundred thousand people every year for the next five years. We would simultaneously make a meaningful contribution to the crisis – that total would represent fully 1% of the world’s current refugees, as opposed to the 0.07% represented by Mr Trudeau’s much more meagre goal – and set an example for other, larger countries to follow.
Of course, this would represent a major departure from the current government’s hyper-controlling and overwhelmingly suspicious approach to immigration – but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
The strongest argument for a more proactively large-scale approach by Canada is that our government has played a major role in creating the conditions for this refugee crisis.
Our government has, tacitly or actively, supported imperial wars which created the chaotic conditions many of these refugees are fleeing. In the cases of some Afghanis and Iraqis and Syrians and Libyans, they may even have made the decision to flee home in the aftermath of an attack by Canadian jets.
Our government has, more than almost any other, obstructed any kind of meaningful action on climate change, which is a major driver of the instability in many of these refugees’ countries of origin. The Syrian civil war, for instance, was in many ways precipitated by a punishing five-year drought – a drought which was the worst on record, and which scientists have linked directly to climate change.
Our government continues to subsidize and enable major international mining companies, which are some of the greatest drivers of violence and war in sub-Saharan Africa.
Canada seems to be in quite removed from the global refugee crisis, but our geographical distance disguises the many ways in which we are intimately connected to the plight of these millions of people who have been left homeless, who have been forced to flee their homes for fear of their lives.
We have a responsibility to do more to make this situation right. We have the ability to take a major leadership role on this issue, and help turn Western discourse away from the cautious xenophobia that currently characterizes our discussions of what is to be done. And we would gain immeasurably by bringing in so many people eager for refuge, for safety, for an ability to make a fresh start far from the conflicts that drove them away.
So let’s think bigger. Let’s do more.
Let’s take a page from the people of Iceland, who found their government’s offer to take in 50 refugees woefully inadequate and began applying massive political pressure on the state to do more. As a poignant and widely quoted Facebook page put it:
Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: “Your life is worth less than mine.”
Or, in the words of Mike Molloy, who oversaw Canada’s efforts to bring in Vietnamese refugees:
“We never lose with refugees. Refugees arrive with no place to go but up.”