Amnesty International calls Syrian refugee assistance pitiful
Human rights organization, NDP critic ask whether slow response is because Syrians are Muslims
Even as the Canadian government struggles to meet its existing commitments to Syrian refugees, there is no reason that commitment can't be dramatically increased, Amnesty International Canada and the Syrian Canadian Council said Friday.
They are calling for Canada to resettle up to 10,000 people displaced by the Syrian civil war over the next two years and allow private groups to also increase the number they can sponsor.
"There's every reason in the world that Canada should be leading the charge in responding to this refugee crisis," Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada said on Friday.
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The request comes ahead of a meeting in Geneva next week where the United Nations High Commission on Refugees will ask countries to increase their refugee resettlement commitments.
A request for help in 2013 by the UNHCR resulted in Canada promising to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, 200 by the government and the rest by private groups.
Yet the government is nowhere near meeting that goal.
The latest statistics, tabled in the House of Commons this week and reported Thursday by CBC News, show 457 have arrived — 294 sponsored by the government and 163 sponsored privately.
Since October 2013, there have been 2,343 applications from private sponsors, the documents said.
'We hope that religion is not a factor'
The government has blamed the lag in arrivals on the need for screening and other logistical hurdles connected with processing people from refugee camps.
But the delays mean it will take years before families approved for resettlement even arrive and in the meantime would-be sponsors are giving up even making applications, said Faisal Alazem, a spokesperson for the Syrian Canadian Council.
There seems to be no will on the part of the government to speed up the process and the Syrian Canadian community is asking why, considering the government's responses to past crises, he said.
"What is different between what happened in the Philippines and in Syria, the largest refugee crises since the creation of the United Nations even?" he said.
"Geography is one of the answers ... we hope that religion is not a factor but unfortunately it is something that is being talked about in the community."
After Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, the government pledged to fast-track visa applications for people affected by the storm. Since then, 1,540 Filipinos have entered Canada, according to media reports.
In his news conference Friday, Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, also asked whether things would be different if the Syrian refugees weren't Muslims, asking how else to explain the government's "miserly" response.
Only 1.7% of refugees offered sanctuary
Canada is not alone in what Amnesty International called a pitiful response to the Syrian refugee crisis in a report released Friday.
Around 3.8 million refugees from are being hosted in five main countries in the region and only 1.7 per cent have been offered sanctuary by the rest of the world, the report said.
Some of the world's wealthiest countries have yet to offer a single place.
The group is calling for at least five per cent of Syria's refugees to be resettled by the end of 2015 with a further five per cent resettled by 2016.
To what extent the Canadian government is willing or able increase its commitments is unclear.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has given no indication that he, or anyone else from Canada, will attend the Geneva meeting next week.
But an Alexander spokesman promised that Canada will have something to offer soon.
"Canada is one of the world's largest providers of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. To date, Canada has committed more than $630 million in humanitarian, development and security assistance to the Syrian crisis," Kevin Menard said in an e-mail.
Arriving 'in short order'
During question period on Friday, Costas Menegakis, Alexander's parliamentary secretary, repeated earlier statements that 1,150 Syrians have received Canada’s protection to date and added that the refugees "will be here in short order."
"We can do more and we will do more," Menegakis said.
In a scrum with reporters later, he said the government has "approved" the 1,150 and is "processing applications as we speak."
"We cannot force people to get on the plane to come here," he said.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar told reporters that it was a "lack of competence" that saw the government fail to keep its commitment, and echoed Neve's question as to why Syrian refugees can't come to Canada.
"Is it because of their background? Is it because of their religious affiliation? The government’s very proud to talk about Iraqi Christians who have come, but you know, why is it that Syrians aren’t able to more ably get to Canada?" he said.
"Unfounded allegations of Mr. Neve and Amnesty speak volumes about their credibility. We will not give any weight to such comments by answering them," Menard wrote in French in an email to Radio-Canada.
With files from CBC News