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Canada takes small but disappointing steps forward for Syrian Refugees

    Monday, September 21, 2015 - 00:00

    By Gloria Nafziger, Amnesty Canada's Refugee Coordinator.

    The recent announcement to bring 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Canada by September 2016 has the appearance of being a step in the right direction. Without a doubt, in the face of the most urgent refugee crisis in the past 40 years anything that can be done to expedite the resettlement of vulnerable refugees is a step in the right direction. 

    But it is a very small and disappointing step forward.

    On the encouraging side, Saturday’s announcement  means that Syrian and Iraqi refugees who are outside their country will now automatically be considered refugees, without the need for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to conduct individual status determination.  This is a very important step forward, as groups of Canadians will now be able to submit resettlement applications for individual refugees, including for their family members. There is no commitment however as to how long it will take for these applications to be processed. Wait times in Amman Jordan currently stand at 19 months and 45 months in Ankara, Turkey.  The announcement did provide for an additional $25 million towards the resources for processing of refugee cases, hopefully this will substantially increase speed and efficiency.

    Unfortunately, the government  made no commitment to increasing the number of Syrian refugees who may come to Canada; only that those already committed to will get here sooner.  The commitment of 10,000 Syrian refugees, announced already announced in January 2015, has been sped up to 21 months (September 2016) rather than the initial timeline of 36 months (December 31 2017).  (A commitment to an additional 10,000 by the end of 2018 would not be instituted until after the election.)

    It is deeply disappointing that the government did not make a much bolder commitment to bring a significant number of Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees have called for 10,000 this year and then for a high-level meeting to be promptly convened to set further, generous levels for the years to come. Notable public figures such as retired General Rick Hillier have called for much more.

    As well, no commitment was made to expediting visas for Syrians with family ties in Canada; a measure that would have significantly helped the Kurdi family and prevented them from needing to take a deadly journey. No commitment was made to the resettlement of Syrians who remain in Syria.  There was no mention of issuing Temporary Residents Permits which allow refugees to travel immediately and complete their immigration processing in Canada.

    There is no breakdown as to how many of these refugees will be Syrian and how many will be Iraqi.  There is no commitment that these 10,000 refugee places will not displace Canada’s commitment to resettlement from other refugee producing countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia or Eritrea.  There is no commitment that these 10,000 spaces will be government-assisted spaces which are in addition to refugees sponsored by private groups in Canada.  Saturday’s announcement continued to emphasize the resettlement of religious and ethnic minorities, with vague references to other vulnerable people.

    Finally it was troubling once again to hear frequent references in Minister Alexander’s comments conflating refugees and terrorists.  No one has suggested in any way that Syrian refugees should be exempted from security screening.  Of course not.  In that context, the continuing gratuitous suggestion that there is a significant likelihood of “jihadi terrorists” hiding among refugees coming to Canada risks eroding understanding and support for this pressing humanitarian crisis.

    Saturday’s announcement included the appointment of a Special Coordinator to oversee efforts with respect to Syrian and Iraqi refugees.  This is a very good thing, but more must be done.  All political parties must articulate a refugee policy which responds not only to the crisis of Syrian refugees but also responds to the need to protect the rights of refugees who arrive spontaneously and make refugee claims from within Canada. Changes to the Immigration Act in 2012 seriously eroded these rights. It is time to put the rights of refugees, both at home and abroad, back on the agenda of all political parties. Until refugee rights are fully protected, refugees will continue to take deadly journeys and deaths will surely follow.

    For more information including Amnesty's full Call to Action, visit our page on the Syrian Refugee Crisis.