If you live in Metro Vancouver, tonight’s (September 8) public forum at Vancouver City Hall on the Syrian refugee crisis is not to be missed.
It is one of many such public information meetings that have been rapidly organized across Canada to spur public concern to action, triggered by the horrific image of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying face down on a Turkish beach.
The global outpouring of people wanting to help the Syrian refugees is heartening and hopeful, however ephemeral it might be. Sadly, the facts suggest that the world’s abiding concern for human displacement is typically Twitter-deep.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), "59.5 million people [were] forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. The increase since 2013 was the highest ever seen in a single year."
That’s a 40 percent increase in refugees in just three years, from 42.5 million in 2011 to 59.5 million as of last December.
Of those displaced persons in 2014, some 19.5 million were refugees fleeing armed conflict or persecution, 51 percent of whom were children under the age of 18. By comparison, “only” 41 percent of all refugees in 2009 were children.
Some 34,300 asylum applications were lodged by unaccompanied or separated children, mostly by Afghan, Eritrean, Syrian, and Somali children. That was the highest number ever.
Last year, 53 percent of all refugees falling under the UNHCR’s mandate came from just three countries: Syria (3.88 million), Afghanistan (2.59 million), and Somalia (1.11 million), the same as in 2013, except for the 1.5 million more refugees that fled Syria in 2014.
On top of that, another 5.1 million Palestinian refugees were registered by United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
Eighty-six percent of all refugees were from less developed regions and countries, while a quarter of all refugees were in countries ranking among the UN’s list of least developed nations.
If those stats are not shocking enough, consider these findings from the UNHCR’s June 2015 report:
“In 2014, an average of 42,500 people became refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced every day, representing a four-fold increase in just four years. Worldwide, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. Were this the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest.”
The statistics from MercyCorps on the current state of the Syrian crisis are equally mind-boggling.
Some 11 million of that country’s 23 million citizens are now displaced, including 7.6 million people who are “internally displaced”—forced to flee their homes, within their own country. Another four million Syrians have registered or are awaiting registration with the UNHCR, a number that is growing by the day.
As MercyCorps reports, “In 2012, there were 100,000 refugees. By April 2013, there were 800,000. That doubled to 1.6 million in less than four months. There are now four million Syrians scattered throughout the region, making them the world's largest refugee population under the United Nations' mandate.”
The scope of the crisis is almost too great to comprehend. Nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced and its number of refugees is rapidly approaching the equivalent of British Columbia’s entire population.
From the Middle East to Africa, the figures on human displacement are a damning indictment of global indifference to a problem that is going to become exponentially worse as climate change takes it toll.
Indeed, the world’s worst-ever exodus is one that we Canadians are all authoring, as some of the world’s worst per capita “contributors” to global warming.
We can’t say we weren’t warned.
Back in 2008, the UNHCR was sounding the alarm that climate change will account for the displacement of some six million people a year. As many as one billion people might be displaced by climate change by 2050.
Granted, they won’t necessarily be “refugees”, in the usual sense of that word. But many of them will be permanently displaced, forced to forever evacuate their homes and even their homelands.
Not because of any political or religious clash, per se, but rather because of the physical changes to our topography and weather that we are at least partially responsible for causing and inviting through our avoidable contributions to climate change.
What are we doing about that problem, really, as Canadians? Pretty much nothing, except making it worse.
We use more energy, water, and gas per capita than almost anyone else in the world, as if the resulting greenhouse gas emissions we generate are somehow disconnected from the human suffering and loss of life that they will inevitably yield in tandem with climate change.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it very clear that human-induced impacts on our atmosphere will play an important role in aggravating climate-induced displacement.
Rising sea levels, increasing droughts, extreme weather events, water scarcity, and many other consequences of climate change will all conspire to yield unprecedented forced human dislocation. The political ramifications of those challenges will further compound the problem, as violent conflicts escalate and new power struggles arise that will push more climate refugees beyond their nations’ borders.
Yet climate change has so far barely registered as an election issue, taking a back seat as usual to the economy and to the issue of jobs, jobs, jobs.
Are we prepared to put a serious price on carbon, from sea to sea, to shining sea? Not likely.
Are we willing to fundamentally change our behaviour and embrace the personal and societal sacrifices that are clearly necessary to combat global warming? In theory, perhaps, but not really, at this point.
If we were, SUV sales would not be rising as they have been. Public attitudes on all fossil fuel development would be much less supportive than it is of oil sands development, natural gas development, and the prospect for LNG exports. We would be willing to do what it takes to promote renewable energy and to embrace truly sustainable development.
In Canada today, for the most part, jobs trump the environment, or at least climate action. And by extension, our concerns about the economy trump our concern for the climate refugees-in-waiting that we are all blithely ignoring with our own inaction on the seminal issue of our times.
Sadly, the “inconvenient truths” that were so vogue in 2007 are now as “yesterday” as Al Gore, however much we might kid ourselves that we really give a damn and are “doing our part.”
Instead of demanding immediate action, we will wait to see what the politicians can agree upon, if anything, in Paris this December, in the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
I am not holding my breath that the recent recommendations from the UN’s Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility will be adopted.
Now more than ever, the pending climate refugee crisis is on us, as we are also suddenly fixated on the human suffering caused by Syria’s brutal civil war.
Yet the problem at hand is so much bigger than that one nation that now holds our fleeting attention.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, in 2013 almost 22 million people were displaced in at least 119 countries by geophysical hazards, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and by weather-related hazards, such as floods, storms, landslides, cold snaps, and wildfires.
That is nearly three times as many people as were newly displaced by conflict and violence.
Developing countries accounted for 97 percent of those displacements from 2008 to 2013. The risk of displacement is estimated to have more than doubled in the four decades since the 1970’s.
At the same time, Canada’s foreign aid has plummeted, from a peak of 0.5 percent of GDP in 1987, under Brian Mulroney, to only 0.25 percent of GDP in 2000, under Jean Chretien. That level of contribution rose a bit in subsequent years, but not significantly.
Now the parliamentary budget officer advises that Canada’s foreign aid will fall even further to new record lows under the Harper government’s current planned spending decreases.
In real terms, according to the OECD, Canada’s foreign development assistance fell by 10.7 per cent last year, to only 0.24 per cent of Gross National Income.
So much for meeting our nation’s avowed goal of devoting 0.7 percent of GDP to foreign aid, as recommended by Lester B. Pearson during Pierre Trudeau’s first administration—a goal that was embraced by Liberal and Conservative governments alike.
Fact is, most of us were prepared to sit by and do nothing as Canada’s contributions to foreign aid dropped from near the top of the international pack to below the OECD average.
We cannot absolve ourselves of that failing, which barely caused a ripple of public attention or concern, aimed as it was at also helping to balance the budget and minimize our tax burden. But it is a problem that we can all resolve to remedy with new conviction, perspective and funding.
Then again, it is so much easier to urge governments to do more in addressing almost any problem than it is to commit to personal action.
Speaking for myself, it is humbling to see the lengths that so many others are prepared to go to in embracing the ethic of humanitarianism that I know is right, but mostly ignore in practice.
Even today, I won’t be among those who care enough to give what it takes to sponsor a Syrian refugee family. It’s just too big of a commitment.
Though I am happy to support the minimal measures proposed by Tom Mulcair, Justin Trudeau, and Elizabeth May to help more of those desperate souls escape to a better life, I was hardly banging the drum for such measures as the Syrian tragedy unfolded over the last four years.
More to the point, I am not keen on inviting anywhere close to the massive numbers of refugees that other countries like Germany and Sweden have welcomed.
Tens of thousands more Syrian refugees? No problem. But a hundred thousand or more? Sorry, Pat Carney, but most Canadians wouldn’t stand for it.
And yet we all know that the additional numbers that any of the federal parties is contemplating is really just a drop in the bucket for a country as vast and wealthy as Canada.
What is Canada’s true capacity to provide a safe haven for global refugees?
Let’s just say that its economic capacity vastly outstrips Canadians’ collective political will for “pitching in” to help to the extent that other countries have done.
Imagine. Germany is actively planning to receive 800,000 Syrian refugees—about 80 times more than Canada has planned for. Now that’s real commitment. And no, I can’t imagine any country doing that.
Yet in 2013, Pakistan was the world’s largest refugee-hosting country. It sheltered some 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees, a number that doesn’t even include those who were undocumented.
As the UNHCR reported, that equated to 710 refugees for every US dollar of Pakistan’s per capita GDP—a phenomenal burden. By comparison, Germany hosted 17 refugees for every US dollar of its GDP per capita. And Canada’s contribution? Not remotely comparable.
In 2013, Lebanon hosted the largest number of refugees in relation to its national population—178 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, or nearly one refugee for every five citizens. Staggering.
Last year, Turkey became the largest refugee-hosting country worldwide,
with 1.59 million refugees, followed by Pakistan (1.51 million), Lebanon (1.15 million), the Islamic Republic of Iran (982,000), Ethiopia (659,500), and Jordan (654,100).
Those numbers help put Canada’s aid in perspective. As of July 2014, only 1,297 Syrian refugees had actually made it to our country, while only 1,000 have accepted so far this year, 857 of whom were privately sponsored.
Canada’s focus has mostly been on the 18,320 Iraqi refugees that had resettled across our nation as of a year ago.
How much are we willing to pay and how many refugees are we willing to harbour, now and in the future? What numbers should we plan to welcome, whether they are driven to our shores to escape violence or persecution, or are forced to leave their homelands by climate-related events and circumstances?
We should have that discussion openly and honestly without fear of recrimination.
It is, after all, our country. It is time we had the courage as a nation to get behind a more honest and fulsome vision for immigration. One that is worthy of our past and of our global duty to play a leadership role in the changing and increasingly challenged world in which we live.
National security is a key part of that discussion.
Many Canadians are legitimately concerned about the potential for fraud or the risk of allowing bad actors to slip into our country in its efforts to help the UN-certified refugees. They are understandably concerned about ISIL’s potential for infiltrating the ranks of those we aim to welcome and accommodate.
We dare not speak of that concern in public, for fear of being branded racist, “anti-Muslim” or just plain paranoid. But it is a fear that also largely explains many Canadians’ passive support of the stricter refugee policies that the Harper government imposed in the wake of the turmoil that followed the “Arab Spring.”
Much as it hurts to admit it, my own “generosity” of spirit is decidedly limited.
I am certainly prepared to pay higher taxes to expedite refugee assistance, to increase foreign aid and international relief efforts, and to support the Western world’s military efforts to combat ISIL and to make Syria a safer place.
But would I put my life on the line to help fight on the frontlines as a sponsor, as a soldier, or as a candidate for public office? Nope. Such generosity, courage, and civic responsibility is beyond my personal comfort zone, awed though I am at those selfless actions by others.
Anyway, my pangs of guilt will ebb with the tide of public opinion that now begs for political action that very few were demanding even a short few weeks ago.
Truth is, too many of us are too comfortable in our own hypocrisy. We demand actions of others while doing virtually nothing ourselves. Me included.
Which is why it is so important to become informed about the world’s plight of displaced persons. If only for its potential to shame more of us to the action that we know in our hearts is long overdue.
Yes, we can all blame Stephen Harper for the policies his government introduced in 2012 that made it so much harder for Syrian and other refugees to come to Canada. Policies that were ostensibly adopted to reduce fraud, to enhance national security, and to simultaneously reduce and expedite the growing backlog of sponsorship applications.
Taken in isolation, Canada’s current rule for “group of five” sponsorships—a reference to the minimum number of adult Canadians required to sponsor a refugee family—arguably makes some sense.
That rule requires the United Nations refugee agency or another country to first certify a person as a refugee before he or she will be considered for entry under a private sponsorship. Seems like a reasonable precaution, at first blush.
But as most of us now know, that agency won’t issue the documents that Canada requires unless our government first confirms that a family has been accepted; while Canada will not confirm any family for acceptance until it receives the UN’s certification documents.
It’s a classic, ridiculous Catch 22 that is causing too many refugees to lose hope and to take life-threatening risks to find their way past the red tape that our government deliberately put in their way.
Those policy changes attracted scant interest from the media or from other political parties until the Aylan Kurdi picture was published. So be it. Just fix them.
The NDP, the Liberals, and the Greens have all proposed many measures that would go a long way to improving Canada’s refugee assistance and foreign aid policies. Great. Let’s cherry-pick the best of those ideas and talk about how they might be enhanced to produce a smart, new, sweeping immigration vision for Canada.
Tonight’s Vancouver forum offers one opportunity to help get that ball rolling.
Whoever forms the next government should commit to asking an all-party parliamentary committee to build on Canadians’ current interest in the issue to help shape the immigration and refugee policies that will also shape their country.
Finger pointing serves no purpose, inescapable as it is in the midst of a federal election campaign.
If we are looking for someone to blame for Canada’s current shortcomings, we should start by looking within ourselves to come to terms with our own role in ushering in the status quo that we either unwittingly or willingly invited.
The magnitude of the problem is huge and is only sure to get larger as our planet gets warmer.
It’s time we had a truly national discussion on immigration aimed in part at strengthening Canada’s commitment to helping the world’s displaced persons. One that also factors in the effects of climate change and that recognizes, whatever its cause, the next exodus is on us.