Time for Canada to act

Our response to the Syrian refugee crisis is looking eerily like the closed-border policy that turned away Jews escaping the Nazis before the Second World War

Just before the Second World War, Velvel Farber, my father’s older brother, made it across the Atlantic. Through stealth and luck he’d managed to make his way to the Polish port city of Gdansk from his village and stowed away on a boat headed to the United States.

However, like many Jews escaping the Nazi threat before him, he was apprehended upon arrival and returned to Poland. He was murdered in the gas chambers of Treblinka in 1943.

Canada was no better than the United States before the war, turning away frantic refugees who came within miles of our shores. The story of the MS St. Louis is just one harrowing example hundreds of refugees who were returned to Europe perished in the Nazi death camps. 

Today, another refugee crisis on a scale not seen since those ominous days has erupted on the world stage. There are nearly 4 million Syrian refugees in five host countries. Another 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced by war in their own country. Half the country’s 16 million people, their savings depleted and assets liquidated, are in need of humanitarian aid. (See sidebar.)

Canada’s government has pledged to match individual donations up to $100 million and settle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees within a year’s time, but this country must move beyond hesitation and fear to quickly help those escaping Syria’s war. Of course, like many previous waves of immigrants who today make up much of our population, those arriving from Syria will make an important contribution to Canadian society.  

The complex crisis in Syria has no simple solution. The refugee crisis compels a meaningful response. 

In my work with the Canadian Jewish community and other communities I have seen the value of good research on immigration patterns and the integration of newcomers. While we can all appreciate the security issues, we cannot allow that concern to override our humanity. 

To that end, the Mosaic Institute recently established the Humanity Wins Committee. Ron Atkey, immigration minister in Joe Clarke’s government, which spearheaded Canada’s response to the Vietnamese refugee crisis in 1979, has been appointed chair. Atkey is also a former chair of Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee and all too aware of the need to ensure our security as we begin a process of dialogue and action to articulate a Canadian response to the refugee crisis. 

Committee members also include former RCMP head Norman Inkster, former Canadian Supreme Court justice and UN high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour as well as Ed Broadbent and Academy Award-nominated writer and director Atom Egoyan.

The committee is calling on the government to send Canadian visa officials to refugee camps, speed up the process to move Syrian refugees here more quickly and contribute to a political solution by supporting the development of a sustainable political response to the five-year-old civil war in Syria that does not involve dropping more bombs.

A political solution will require both diplomatic and community-based efforts. This could include convening political leaders in the region, facilitating peace talks and consulting with civil society leaders and Canadians of Syrian background here. 

In memory of the victims of Canada’s history of closed borders, the immediate action of beginning the process of refugee resettlement and peace-building would speak well to this country’s reputation for leadership in trying times.

No refuge from the  storm

7.6 million Number of people internally displaced in Syria, almost a third of the country’s pre-civil war population of 23 million. The UN says there are some 59.5 million displaced people worldwide.

About 4 million Syrian refugees in five host countries: 1.9 million in Turkey, 250,000 in Iraq,1.1 million in Lebanon, 132,000 in Egypt and 630,000 in Jordan.

350,000 Syrian refugees who have entered Europe this year alone.

3,000 Syrian refugees arriving on the shores of Greece daily.

44,000 Migrants who have died crossing the Mediterranean and other international borders, including between the U.S. and Mexico, since 2000. 

7,573 Total number of refugees accepted by Canada in 2014. 

 30 Percentage that refugee acceptance rates have fallen in Canada over the last nine years.

Sources: International Committee of the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, No One Is Illegal 

Bernie M. Farber is executive director of the Mosaic Institute.

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