Open Letter to Minister Alexander on Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis
December 2, 2014
The Honourable Chris Alexander
Minister of Citizenship and Immigration
Ottawa, ON K1A 1L1
Dear Minister Alexander,
We are writing this Open Letter to you in regards to Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. In advance of the UNHCR pledging conference in Geneva on December 9, 2014, we are urgently calling on the Government of Canada to substantially increase its response across all fronts, including higher levels of resettlement and greater financial assistance.
In particular, at this time, we are calling on the government to make a firm commitment to accept – over the next two years – a minimum of 10,000 people from the countries in the region hosting Syrian refugees for resettlement to Canada, through government-assisted programs. We also urge the government to increase the quota for private sponsorships of Syrians to Canada, and to ensure that there are options available which would allow a generous response to the needs of particularly vulnerable Syrians trapped inside Syria. Furthermore it is of vital importance that the Canadian government increase its financial assistance to UN agencies as well as Syria’s neighbouring countries.
Since we last wrote to you about this issue, on September 10, 2013, the crisis has deepened significantly. There are now over 10 million Syrians displaced from their homes: 6.45 million within the country, and 3.8 million outside. This crisis of displacement has become the most serious humanitarian emergency the world has witnessed in decades.
In the face of such an overwhelming and virtually unprecedented human rights and humanitarian catastrophe, Canada’s response needs to be substantial and exceptional. That includes the need for significant financial assistance to UN agencies, humanitarian organizations and regional host governments, as well as generous levels of refugee resettlement and other measures.
In the face of a crisis of truly international proportions, it is also critical that Canada play a leadership role in ensuring a strong and effective global response to the pressing needs of displaced Syrians. The upcoming ministerial level conference on resettlement, taking place in Geneva on December 9, 2014, is an excellent opportunity for Canada to do so.
Canada has made an important financial contribution to international efforts to respond to the crisis. The government has stated that it has contributed $353.5 million to humanitarian assistance in Syria and the region. This support is vital, but it is not enough. As the government is aware, the UN’s 2014 appeal for $3.74 billion to deal with the Syrian crisis currently remains only 51% funded. Amnesty International urges Canada to provide more generous support for this large-scale and prolonged humanitarian emergency.
And while financial humanitarian support to the region is crucial and must continue, there is much more that Canada can do in order to assist Syrians.
Resettlement is key. Refugees who have reached Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey face enormous hardship and difficulties, as Amnesty International’s research has shown. This is particularly the case for vulnerable refugees, including those who have been injured and traumatized by violence and human rights violations. In addition, the impact on communities, infrastructure and budgets in these neighbouring countries, which are struggling to cope with such a mass influx, has been overwhelming. A quarter of Lebanon’s population is now Syrian. And Turkey has accepted at least 1.6 million refugees from Syria, of which 85% must live outside of the government-run refugee camps, and are struggling to survive. It is vital that the international community accept more Syrian refugees, so as to relieve the tremendous strain placed on countries in the region.
UNHCR, the UN’s Refugee Agency, set a goal of securing approximately 30,000 resettlement places from 2013 until the end of 2014, and a further 100,000 places for 2015 and 2016. Largely due to Germany’s commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees (with an additional 10,000 individual sponsorship arrangements), the 2014 goal has been met. But UNHCR’s longer term goal will be impossible to reach without a meaningful and rapid shift in the policies of national governments, including Canada.
Amnesty International is calling for a two-year global resettlement surge to relocate 10% of all Syrian refugees from the main host countries. At current levels, this would mean other countries sharing the responsibility by resettling approximately 380,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016. Such a bold step would make a huge contribution to the well-being of the children, men, and women who would be able to resume their lives in dignity elsewhere.
Canada must assume its international responsibilities and accept a much more significant portion of the world’s 3.8 million Syrian refugees. Canada should also do more to assist Syrians who are still trapped inside Syria. The government’s announcement in July 2013 that it would accept 200 Syrians through government sponsorship and 1,100 through private arrangements is welcome but absolutely inadequate. Amnesty International is equally concerned that the response of many other governments around the world to the UNHCR’s appeal for greater resettlement has fallen far below what is required.
With an eye to ensuring that Canada is playing its equitable role in responding to this crisis of displacement, Amnesty International calls on the government to make a commitment to resettle, over the next two years, at least 10,000 Syrian refugees who have fled Syria and are living in neighbouring countries. As well, Amnesty International urges that the government expand the quota for private sponsorships, and ensure that there are options available which would allow a generous response to the plight of vulnerable people still trapped within Syria. Amnesty International also urges that more generous funding be allocated to UN agencies and to Syria’s neighbouring countries.
Amnesty International urges Canada to take the following steps, in the spirit of genuine responsibility-sharing:
• make a firm commitment to resettle a minimum of 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada between now and the end of 2016, through government-assisted programs;
• increase the quota for the private sponsorship of Syrians to Canada;
• put in place options that respond to the needs of particularly vulnerable Syrians still inside Syria;
• provide more generous funding to the UN’s Regional Response Plan;
• provide more generous funding to countries neighbouring Syria to increase the capacity of national services – including healthcare institutions and educational facilities, as well as housing initiatives and food security measures – to meet the needs of refugees from Syria as well as affected local populations;
• immediately provide additional resources and personnel to Canadian visa offices in the region so that all applications can be processed in as timely a manner as possible;
• expedite the resettlement and admission processes, to reduce the time it takes between cases being submitted and Syrians leaving for Canada;
• give priority in resettlement programs to those assessed as the most vulnerable, including women and girls at risk, survivors of violence or torture, older refugees at risk, refugees who are members of minority groups, and refugees with medical needs or disabilities;
• facilitate family reunification for Syrian refugees with family ties in Canada, applying a broad definition of family members to include extended or non-nuclear family;
• waive any obstacles to Syrians accessing protection, such as visa requirements and unnecessarily burdensome family reunification criteria and restrictions;
• ensure that Palestinians ordinarily resident in Syria are not denied protection because they do not have the status of Syrian nationals, or certain identification documents;
• respond affirmatively to all requests for student visas which come from Syrians, where the students demonstrate that 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 of Syrians who meet the visa requirements; and
• waive the requirement that Syrians sponsored under a Group of Five application be determined as Convention Refugees by UNHCR.
Amnesty International is deeply concerned by the difficulties that have arisen in obtaining clear, reliable and accurate statistics and information about the numbers of Syrian refugees who have been resettled to Canada since the crisis began. We therefore also request the following information from the government:
• the total number of Syrians who have been granted refugee status since July 2013, with a breakdown of those who have been resettled through government sponsorship, those who have reached Canada through private sponsorship, and those who have gained refugee status by way of claims processed by the Immigration and Refugee Board; and
• the breakdown of the countries from which Syrian refugees have been resettled: Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and any other countries.
Amnesty International also reiterates, in line with UNHCR’s recommendation, that at present no Syrians should be returned to Syria or neighbouring countries. The current administrative deferral of removals of Syrians from Canada has a number of exceptions related to criminal and other inadmissibility. Canada should clarify that, in line with the international legal obligation of non-refoulement, in no circumstances will Syrians be forcibly returned from Canada.
Minister, Canadians are deeply troubled by the gravity of the human rights and humanitarian crisis that has devastated Syria over the past three and a half years, including by the recent rise of the armed group calling itself the Islamic State. Canadians are also gravely concerned about the political deadlock that has blocked international efforts to bring the crisis to an end. That 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.
We urge the Government of Canada to begin a new chapter in its response to this international refugee crisis, starting with generous resettlement and financial commitments to be announced at the conference in Geneva on December 9, 2014.
Amnesty International would welcome an opportunity to meet with you to discuss any of these matters.
Alex Neve Béatrice Vaugrante
Secretary General Directrice Générale
Amnesty International Canada Amnistie internationale Canada francophone