Peter Showler: Canada can rise to the refugee challenge

The Ottawa Citizen, 12 November 2015.

syrian refugees, boys
Syrian refugee boys play at a refugee camp in the town of Hosh Hareem, in the Bekaa valley, east Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. The United Nations said the worsening conflict in Syria has left 13.5 million people in need of aid and some form of protection, including more than six million children. Hassan Ammar / AP

There are more than 4.5 million Syrian refugees in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Some have been there for as long as four years and most are in desperate circumstances. It’s a situation so hopeless that over 600,000 refugees – men, women and children – have been driven to risk their lives in over-crowded boats to reach Europe where they face both humanitarian welcomes and barbed wire at some borders. Nearly 3,500 refugees did not complete that voyage.

Winter snows are coming to Lebanon and Turkey. Many have spent up to four years in squalid refugee camps or surviving marginal existences in cities and towns. There are no formal refugee camps in tiny Lebanon, a country of four million people with 1.4 million Syrian refugees who are scattered throughout the country, supported by a patch work of international agencies. Refugees live in tents in NGO-rented fields with makeshift latrines, in rented apartments, five or six families for a one family apartment, or worse, in abandoned and bombed out buildings from the civil war. Fewer than 15 per cent receive ration cards, less than a dollar a day. Others depend on exhausted savings, relatives abroad, or illegal work for pennies a day. Child labour, abusive employers, survival sex, and begging: all are common. All are reasons to leave.

This past week, John McCallum, the new minister of immigration, refugees, and citizenship, stated that the government intended to meet the Dec. 31 deadline. The emphasis, though, should not be on the deadline but on the task itself.

The resettlement of 25,000 refugees is a mammoth undertaking. It requires the identification of appropriate refugees, health examinations, security reviews, exit visas, transportation to Canada, temporary accommodation and ultimately, settlement in Canadian communities. That last stage, settlement, is the one most overlooked and the most difficult. It means finding decent housing, getting the kids into school, medical and dental exams, registration with various government agencies, ESL training, finding employment, drivers licenses, learning about public transport, bank accounts, cell phones and the hundred other tasks to successfully integrate into a new society of welcoming strangers.

Canada normally resettles 13,000 overseas refugees per year. We have a network of settlement agencies and experienced settlement workers in most Canadian cities but those agencies are already overworked and underfunded. We have medical clinics and public schools that are experienced at absorbing children, refugee and immigrant, with varying language and educational capacities. But none of these agencies can turn on a dime to take double the annual caseload in a sixth of the time while doing their regular jobs, and they will be doing their regular jobs since the 25,000 are supplemental to the annual resettlement program of 13,000 refugees.

Canada, unique among nations, has a network of refugee sponsorship groups, many of them church-related, that has been resettling refugees since 1979 through Canada’s Private Sponsorship program. These groups have vast experience at settling refugees but they also are overworked and under-resourced. Some have also been worn down by years of recalcitrant conduct by the previous Conservative government.

Those are the challenges: select 25,000 Syrian refugees, bring them to Canada, and settle them into communities across Canada – by Dec. 31. The task is enormous but not impossible – apart from the deadline.

The first half of the task, overseas selection and transport, is the easier of the two. Thousands of refugees already have Canadian family members who are begging to sponsor and house them. That is, to use the technical legal term, a no-brainer. With smart and practical selection practices and the cooperation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, we can rapidly identify other refugees who are low security risks. All of them can be granted temporary resident permits for prompt entry to Canada. Experts such as General Rick Hillier say that adequate transport, by plane and ship, is available and doable.

Settlement in Canada, the second half of the undertaking, is more complicated. Military and government agencies are scouring their housing inventories for vacant accommodation. Temporary shelter is critical since it is simply not possible to find private commercial accommodation for so many, so quickly.

If refugees are temporarily sheltered, they can be gradually transferred into Canadian communities for settlement over several months. It is a task for all levels of government – federal, provincial, municipal – and most importantly, volunteer Canadians.

Across Canada, there has been an enormous surge of goodwill from Canadians eager to volunteer, to house, to donate, to somehow assist. The government must focus and channel that goodwill into smart, coordinated settlement programs that will allow volunteer groups to be trained and directly assist refugee families.

Forget the deadline. As with the South-east Asian boat people in 1980, this is a turning point moment in Canadian history where we, as a people, will rise to the occasion or not. Canadians are eager to step up to the plate. It is a Herculean task and we should damn well do it.

Peter Showler is the former Chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board and Director of the Refugee Forum in the University of Ottawa. Last year he spent three months in Lebanon working for the UNHCR.