Canada's refugee policy questioned after Syrian boy's drowning

The picture of a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach has heightened attention to Canada's own contribution to accepting refugees from that war-torn area and other troubled regions.

Canada has taken in nearly 2,500 Syrian refugees, but critics say there's been no sense of urgency

Alan Kurdi and his older brother Galib, seen in an undated family photo, drowned along with their mother trying to escape Syria. (Tima Kurdi/Canadian Press)

The picture of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, has heightened attention to Canada's own contribution to accepting refugees from that war-torn area and other troubled regions.

Critics say that Canada has historically been able to act rapidly to accept refugees on an urgent basis, but is failing to do so during the current crisis in the Mideast.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, responding Thursday to the recent tragedy, repeated a familiar government talking point — Canada has the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world, it admits per capita more people than any other and that his government has welcomed in total 2.5 million new arrivals.

Harper is combining immigrants and refugees, however, two different classifications. Canada does accept a lot of economic immigrants, around 165,000 last year. But refugees make up less than 10 per cent of the people accepted into Canada. And the number of refugees granted status in Canada is down from over 35,000 in 2005 to roughly 23,000 in 2014. 

As for the actual number of Syrian refugees who have been pledged and settled in Canada, different figures have been cited.

There's no process in place to accept people on an urgent basis.–Lorne Waldman, immigration lawyer

Back in 2013, then immigration minister Jason Kenney pledged that Canada would resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014.

"The government of Canada is deeply concerned about the crisis in Syria and was ready to respond immediately to those identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as being most in need of urgent protection," Kenney said at the time.

1,300 commitment met in March

According to figures provided by Citizenship and Immigration, the government met its commitment to resettle 1,300 refugees in mid-March of this year, missing its end of 2014 deadline by a few months.

Does Canada do enough for refugees?

7 years ago
Duration 2:37
CBC's Adrienne Arsenault takes a look at the numbers

Of those settled, 866 were privately sponsored and 434 were government assisted. The government, according to the figures, had initially targeted 200 for government assistance, but actually more than doubled its goal.

Two months before the government had reached its 1,300 goal, Immigration Minister Christopher Alexander announced Canada would resettle 10,000 more Syrian refugees over the next three years in direct response to the United Nations Refugee Agency's global appeal to resettle 100,000 refugees worldwide.

Of that 10,000 Syrian refugee commitment, the government says, so far, it has resettled 1,074 — 188 government assisted, 857 privately sponsored and 29 blended visa office-referred.

In total, 2,374 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada since the Conservatives made their 2013 pledge. And of those, 642 (27 per cent) have done so with government assistance, and nearly all the rest with help from private organizations.

In an interview with CBC's Power & Politics, the immigration minister told host Rosemary Barton that government-assisted refugees remain a "huge component" of the program. 

"We take as much private sponsorship as we can, but we use government assistance for those who are most vulnerable and we will continue to do that." He added, however, that as Canada did with the Vietnamese boat people, as many private sponsorships as possible are sought, allowing taxpayer dollars to go further.

Parties make pledges

All the parties have pledged to bring in more refugees in the coming years. While campaigning in Markham Ont., last month, a little over a week after the federal election campaign had kicked off, Harper announced that, if re-elected, his Conservative government would bring in an additional 10,000 refugees from both Syria and Iraq over the next four years. That would be on top of the 10,000 Syrian refugees Alexander pledged to accept earlier this year.

A Syrian refugee carries a sick woman on his back in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, as they flee intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants. The PMO had asked for an audit of Syrian refugee cases. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has said that Canada should resettle 25,000 refugees from Syria as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the NDP said it would get 10,000 Syrian refugees "out of harm's way and to Canada by the end of the year."

Peter Showler, former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, said the bureaucratic process is delaying the resettlement of refugees. He said that if a Canadian family tried to sponsor a Syrian family it would take about a year and a half before they were able to come to Canada.

Showler said that historically Canada has been very good at mass sponsorships.

"We can do that. Canada has the expertise. And this government has decided not to do that."

Showler argued that the government should bring in 10,000 to 20,000 refugees immediately. Canada, he said, has the expertise and capacity to do this by sending over an immigration team and rapidly doing assessments.

For example, during the Kosovo crisis in the late '90s, Showler said, the Canadian government sent over an immigration team, and within four to five months, 5,000 refugees were brought to Canada.

"There's no process in place to accept people on an urgent basis," said immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman.

When there's a real refugee emergency, the government has the option of bringing people in under special permits —  temporary residence permits, Waldman said,

"If you really want to respond quickly you need a system whereby people can be brought in under permits," Waldman said. "We've done it in the past in response to emergencies. We're not doing it now."

With files from Adrienne Arsenault and The Canadian Press


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