Syrian refugees and Canada: The lessons of the boat people

How did 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees make it to Canada in 1979 and 1980, but fewer than 1,300 Syrians in three years since the beginning of their country's conflict?

How did 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees arrive in 18 months, but fewer than 1,300 Syrians in 3 years?

Syrian families wait to register with the UN in Tripoli, Lebanon. Over three million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war in their country. There are also 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians. (Associated Press)

Between 1979 and 1980, the Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark resettled nearly 60,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees in Canada.

In 1979 there were about 350,000 "boat people" scattered across the countries of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. They were forced out of their countries for political reasons. 

Take to the sea or die, they were told.

In Syria today, there are 6.5 million internally displaced people and another three million refugees living in camps or with relatives in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. They fled a repressive and brutal dictatorship on one side of the civil war and violent extremists on the other.

Three years into the conflict, the Canadian government said it is on track to admit 1,300 Syrian refugees this year.

The contrast in numbers is stark. And for a government that regularly urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, a little puzzling.

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Faisal al-Azem is a Syrian-Canadian activist who lives in Montreal. His is a lonely voice in Canada.

Al-Azem had a couple of ideas on why the federal government is doing as little as it is.

First, he said, there is Ottawa's approach to recruiting new Canadians.

"Unfortunately, the Syrian crisis came at a time where Canada seems to be re-evaluating its refugee, immigration and, we learned not long ago, its citizenship policies," he said.

Essentially, the federal government is making it harder to get to Canada.

But then, al-Azem added, there is "no political will to do anything for Syria."

Ottawa calls refugee system 'generous'

The federal government, however, says Canada does more than its share in accepting refugees.

"Canada continues to have one of the most generous immigration and refugee systems in the world. We welcome one out of every 10 resettled refugees globally, more than almost any other industrialized country in the world," said Alexis Pavlich, press secretary to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

  • Did you come to Canada as a refugee? Share your stories and photos with us at community@cbc.ca

In 1979, the machine of government was ready to take in tens of thousands of refugees even if the government itself was not.

"The Department of Immigration had been working assiduously under officials to develop a program of resettlement into Canada that would work. It was a program in which government policy had to catch up with bureaucratic planning," said Ron Atkey, who was immigration minister in the Clark government.

From the CBC archives

Atkey recounted how bureaucrats had been working up plans since 1975. Under the Trudeau Liberals of the day, the political will didn't exist to let in 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees. But his Liberal predecessor briefed him on the work that had been done and Atkey's boss decided he could best the Liberals' efforts.
In the late 1970s, a group of Southeast Asian refugees arrive in Malaysia after their small boat sank a few metres from the shore. (AFP/K. Gaugler)

"Because the Liberals had committed to 5,000. We said we were going to do 10 times that." 

They ended up doing nearly 12 times that. Clark's government didn't do it alone, though. 

Government and the churches

Atkey pointed out that Clark was a fan of public-private partnerships, which in 1979 meant the government and the churches. 

The Mennonite Central Committee led the way.

The church's national refugee program co-ordinator Ed Wiebe said many sponsors were guided by more than just their Christian faith.

Wiebe recounted the story of one older man who came into his office in 1979 with the papers for his church to sponsor a family of Southeast Asian refugees.

As a five-year-old in Second World War Germany, the man told Wiebe, he had a memory of walking along a road with his parents and many others. He didn't know where he was going or where he had been. All he knew was that something very bad had happened and they all had to get away. The TV images of boat people stirred this memory within him.

"When he saw those boats and lines of people scrambling on and off, he said, 'There I go. I've gotta do something,'" recounted Wiebe.

For Wiebe, one of the big differences between the Syrian crisis of today and the boat people of the late-1970s is the media landscape.

"The TV was a lot newer and had more impact then. Now media is more scattered," he said.

Wiebe said moving a similar number of Syrian refugees to Canada is "the right thing to do."

But it would only be possible if the circumstances that were created in 1979 and '80 were there again — government, bureaucracy and private actors working together. 

"You've got to line those up at the same time and in ways that make sense to the public," said Wiebe.

Getting the public on board

And that is the final piece of the puzzle — getting public support for a project of this magnitude.

Atkey said that support is going to be harder to obtain for the Syrians.

"I hate to say it, but there is not as much empathy towards the current Syrian refugees, because they're Islamic and there are still the scars of 9/11," he said.
Syrian children play outside their tent at a refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in May 2014. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

"There generally is an anti-immigrant view in Western countries. I don't think Canada is unique. It's always been there and it's just a matter of managing it."

Where are the Syrian-Canadian voices?

There are 100,000 Canadians of Syrian descent, but their voices are almost never heard.

Al-Azem said it's because they "are afraid of politics." He said that before 2011, when the Assad regime was finally challenged by its own people, "there was a price that you pay" for speaking out. 

In Syria, that meant being "crushed" by the regime. For those outside of the country, it could be dangerous for your family still in Syria.

Al-Azem knows he can never return to Syria because of his work.

"Myself, I decided that I have nothing to lose."

Right now, there are 9.5 million Syrians in the same boat.