How Canada should respond to the Syrian refugee crisis

By Refugee and Migrants Campaigner Gloria Nafziger and Secretary General Alex Neve

With over 2 million Syrian refugees having fled to neighbouring countries and well over 4 million Syrians internally displaced within the country, the crisis of displacement that has resulted from the massive human rights violations in Syria over the past 2 ½ years has been termed the gravest humanitarian emergency the world has faced in years. In the face of such a massive crisis, it is vital that Canada play a leadership role in ensuring a strong and effective global response to the pressing needs of displaced Syrians.

Canada has already made generous financial contributions in response to the crisis. As of 6 September 2013, Canada’s overall contribution of humanitarian assistance since the beginning of this year is reported to be $203 million. This support is vital. The UN has launched an unprecedented $3 billion humanitarian appeal for Syria which is, to date, underfunded by over 50%. Amnesty International encourages Canada to prepare to provide continuing and generous humanitarian support for what has clearly become a prolonged large-scale humanitarian emergency. 

While financial humanitarian support to the region is vital and must continue, there is much more Canada can do in order to directly assist refugees fleeing Syria.  Refugees who have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq face enormous hardship and difficulties.  This is particularly the case for vulnerable refugees, including those who have been injured and traumatized by violence and human right violations.  Additionally, the impact on communities, infrastructure and budgets in these neighbouring countries, struggling to cope with such a mass influx, has been overwhelming. 

Canada can and should provide additional assistance by developing a more generous and flexible approach in its immigration and refugee policies and programs in order to facilitate increased resettlement of Syrians to Canada.  The announcement in July that 1300 Syrians would be resettled to Canada – 200 through government sponsorship and 1100 through private arrangements – is a welcome beginning.  However, Amnesty International urges Canada to go further, particularly with respect to the number of Syrians who will be accepted for resettlement through government assistance.

Amnesty International encourages Canada to take the following urgent steps:

  • Make a firm commitment to ongoing and generous refugee resettlement through government assisted programs, bearing in mind that sponsorships under the Private Sponsorship of Refugee Program should be in addition to government sponsorship, and not the primary vehicle for refugee resettlement in Canada.  As a first step the government should announce significantly higher levels of government sponsored resettlement of Syrian refugees.
  • Give priority in resettlement programs to those assessed as the most vulnerable refugees by UNHCR, including women and girls at risk, survivors of violence and torture, older refugees at risk, refugees who are members of minority groups, and refugees with medical needs or disabilities.
  • Immediately provide additional resources and personnel to Canadian visa offices in the region so that all immigration applications can be processed in as timely a manner as possible. Current delays in Mideast visa processing centres can take anywhere from 12 to 40 months.
  • Waive any obstacles to Syrians accessing protection, such as visa requirements and unnecessarily burdensome family reunification criteria and restrictions.
  • Respond affirmatively to all requests for student visas which come from Syrian nationals where the students demonstrate they have been accepted at a Canadian educational institution and have the necessary funds to attend.
  • Respond affirmatively to all requests for super visa applications, from parents and grandparents of Syrian nationals in Canada who meet the visa requirements.
  • Waive the requirement that Syrians sponsored under a Group of Five application be pre-determined as Convention Refugees by the UNHCR.
  • Facilitate the resettlement of refugees with family links in Canada, on the basis of an expanded definition of family. At a minimum immediately rescind the proposed changes to the definition of a dependent child from 18 years to 21 years. 

Additionally, Amnesty International affirms the recommendation of the UNHCR that the return of all Syrians to Syria and neighbouring countries be suspended until the country’s security and human rights situation has sufficiently improved to permit safe, dignified and sustainable return.  Canada should make it clear that, in line with the international law principle of non-refoulement, no Syrians will be forcibly returned from Canada to Syria, in any manner whatsoever.

Amnesty International calls on Canada to demonstrate leadership to other nations by committing to provide ongoing humanitarian assistance throughout the region; providing flexible and generous options for immigration to Canada for Syrians; and demonstrating that Canada has increased and will continue to increase significantly the number of government assisted resettlement spaces for Syrian refugees, above and beyond annual resettlement quotas.   Such leadership will in turn strengthen Canada’s efforts in calling on countries in the region to keep their borders open; as the prospect of borders being closed or restricted would provoke an even greater humanitarian crisis.

Canadians are deeply troubled by the gravity of the human rights and humanitarian crisis that has devastated Syria over the past 2 ½ years and have been gravely concerned about the political deadlock that has blocked international efforts to bring the crisis to an end.  That political deadlock cannot stand in the way of a generous and robust global response to the plight of Syrian refugees and should, if anything, be impetus for even greater international action. 

Photo: Displaced children in Atmeh, northern Syria, February 2013 © Amnesty International