Opinion: Canada's Leadership in the Refugee Crisis


Published: 9Oct2015

By Myriam Denov and François Crépeau 

Over the past decade, Canada has been notably absent from the world stage in leading humanitarian initiatives, such as during the recent refugee crisis.  With more than 11 million Syrians displaced thus far, Canada can and must do more. While Syrian refugees are fleeing unimaginable violence, global responses have ranged from indifference, to building walls and closing borders, to practices of detainment or “push back”. Migration is mostly portrayed by receiving nations as a calamity, to be dreaded and prevented at any cost. The coming election is an opportune time to change this and to hold politicians directly accountable, making the refugee crisis a priority campaign issue. Party leaders must respond to the call for action and commit to the following. 

Canada must first resettle greater numbers of refugees annually. Considering its annual immigration intake, Canada has the capacity to welcome 30,000 refugees per year. The government could initiate a “matching system”, sponsoring one refugee for every refugee sponsored by a private organization, as was done for the Indochinese forty years ago.

The refugee selection process must be expedited within transit countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan), with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and in line with Canadian priorities (for example, families with children, and unaccompanied minors).

As migration will remain a normal feature of contemporary globalized life, we must welcome refugees at a steady rhythm over several years, through regularly updated five-year plans, adapting them to the crises as they happen.

As a nation, we must invest in a well-developed long-term refugee integration plan that includes support for a network of resettlement NGOs, targeting language acquisition, schooling of children, and work integration programs. Such investments will pay off and document that refugees actually cost less in social services than the economic contribution they bring to Canada in the long term.

We must adopt a position of international leadership, encouraging all countries – in the Global North and beyond (Brazil, Chile, and Argentina for example) – to do their part in welcoming refugees. Think of it, if each of the 32 Global North countries made an annual commitment relative to their population, 3.5 Syrian refugees could be resettled over 5 years.   

Canada can take the lead by hosting an international conference, bringing together key leaders and stakeholders from, at least, all nations of the Global North. The goal of the conference would be the creation of a global five-year plan to resettle around 3 million refugees.

The payoff to these initiatives would be significant for both refugees and host countries. Offering legal and safe migration avenues would reduce migrant smuggling and deaths at sea. The stress on national refugee status determination systems would decrease, as selection would be done directly in transit countries. Scenes of chaos at borders would be mostly replaced by legal and secure resettlement processing mechanisms.

Canada could regain a global leadership role, drawing on our peacekeeping roots and demonstrating our capacity to mobilize partner nations and organizations during a humanitarian crisis. It would send a welcome message to transit nations who have made valiant efforts to support refugees, potentially bolstering Canada’s position in the Middle East. Best of all, our response could leave a lasting mark, serving as a model to address other humanitarian crises elsewhere around the globe.

While refugee movements around the globe will not end soon, Canada has veered away from its roots as a leader of soft diplomacy. The election campaign is a chance to reset our compass. Canada should mobilize politicians of all stripes to embrace a political discourse that values mobility, diversity, pluralism, ultimately portraying migration not as a calamity, but as an immense opportunity.

Myriam Denov is a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Youth, Gender and Armed Conflict at McGill University

François Crépeau is a Professor of International Law at McGill University.  He is Director of the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism

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