Why Canada's refugee plan falls well short of a real solution

Simply picking the cream of the crop from the world's swelling refugee population and bringing them to rich countries like Canada fails to deal with the core problem, writes Stephen Toope.

What does 'duty to protect' mean in a world awash in refugees?

A Syrian refugee child sleeps in his father's arms while waiting at a resting point to board a bus, after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (Muhammed Muheisen/The Associated Press)

The idea of global justice is rooted in the aspiration to make the world a better place, but who decides what justice really is and what happens  when human values and interests collide? Stephen Toope, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, hosts a series on the topic this week on CBC Radio's Ideas, in partnership with the Munk School.

Last week saw a smiling Canadian prime minister greeting exhausted Syrians at Toronto's Pearson Airport.

He was even joined by opposition critics in rare solidarity with the Liberal government's plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February.

Over these past weeks as well, the media has been filled with stories about the outpouring of hospitality offered up by Canadian sponsors.

But the real story is happening elsewhere.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 100,000 refugees in Thailand, 660,000 in Kenya and almost 3.8 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Stephen J. Toope is director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Meanwhile, on the borders of Syria and Iraq, fragile countries like Jordan, with more than a million refugees, and Lebanon, with roughly 1.8 million, are struggling to provide the "protection" supposedly guaranteed by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. And Canada's NATO ally, Turkey, is finding it hard to host almost 1.9 million refugees trying to escape the brutal almost-five-year-old conflict next door in Syria.

In comparison to the meagre efforts of the U.S., Canada's current commitment to Syrian refugees looks ambitious.

But similar efforts in Germany, with one million refugees arriving in 2015, and tiny Sweden with 160,000, are far more dramatic; the social, political and financial costs in those two countries are potentially huge.

And when we remember those millions of refugees sitting in dusty, overcrowded, underfunded camps in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, the honest assessment is that hosting a few tens of thousands of Syrians will not make much difference.

Of course, the lives of some individuals and families will be made enormously better. But the "Syrian refugee problem," much less the "global refugee problem," will not have been answered in any meaningful way.
The first Canadian government planeload of Syrian refugees receives welcome bags at the Toronto Pearson International Airport on Dec. 11. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Think of Jordan

In trying to make some kind of difference, Canada steadily increased its contributions to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, from $49 million to $68 million between 2010 and 2012.

In 2013, Canada made its highest ever contribution, $77 million. Almost $23 million of that was earmarked for Syrian refugees.

In 2014, Canada reduced its contribution slightly to $73.4 million, but was still in the top dozen donor countries.

The UNHCR has publicly thanked Canada for what it calls our "generous" contribution.

But at the same time, one of Canada's few reliable Arab allies, the Kingdom of Jordan, is drowning in the massive costs associated with its trying to host more than one million refugees, the vast majority from Syria.

Jordan's ministry of planning and international co-operation has estimated that the total impact of the Syrian crisis on the 2015 Jordanian budget will be approximately $2.1 billion.

Jordan's GDP is roughly $34 billion. Canada's is more than $1.8 trillion.
A rally in St. John's on Dec. 14 welcomed refugees, while condemning racism and Islamophobia. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Fragility of 'safe havens'

Whenever there is a massive flow of people across the borders of poor countries, those who suffer are not the refugees alone.

Jordanians are suffering now.

A 2015 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observed that as the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan swelled, public dissatisfaction with the Jordanian government grew.

The report concluded that the "rapid expansion of the Syrian refugee population … has the potential to threaten the stability of the current Jordanian political structure."

A collapse of the Jordanian regime would be disastrous for refugees in Jordan, but also for average Jordanians and for the future of an already unstable region.
The International Organization for Migration arranges resettlement interviews and medical tests for Syrian refugees in Amman, Jordan. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

Duty to protect

Canadians have long taken pride in providing safe haven to refugees, a pride resurfacing in the current Syrian crisis.

In the past few weeks, we have been reminded of the Pierre Trudeau government's decision in the mid-1970s to welcome thousands of Ismaili Muslims thrown out of Uganda by the monstrous Idi Amin.

As well, in the 1970s and '80s, roughly 110,000 Vietnamese "boat people" settled in Canada.

A Dutch volunteer comforts a migrant who arrived aboard a raft on the Greek island of Lesbos on Oct. 23. Over half a million refugees and migrants have arrived by sea in Greece this year, the United Nations said. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)
And since then, successive Canadian governments, Conservative and Liberal, have welcomed refugees on an average of roughly 23,000 a year over the last decade alone.

In 1986, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees awarded the prestigious Nansen medal to "the people of Canada" in "recognition of their major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees."

Despite those efforts, however, the refugee population of the world increases.

There are more people displaced around the world today, roughly 60 million, than at any time since the end of the Second World War. Millions and millions are refugees as defined by the UN Refugee Convention.

That means the countries that have joined the convention have a duty to protect them.

Children cry as migrants on the Greek side of the border try to get through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, in August 2015. (Georgi Licovski/EPA)
But "protection" is not just about picking the cream of the crop and bringing them to rich countries like Canada. That strategy will fail to deal with the core problems.

Obviously, countries have to do more to identify the emerging conflicts that cause refugee flows and try to stem them before they flare.

But rich countries also have to do far more to help the poor countries where most refugees find themselves.

That means more money and more technical aid to places like Jordan. Otherwise, more countries will collapse, creating even more refugees. And they don't all want to come to Canada.

Produced by CBC radio's Ideas in partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs.


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