Opening our Doors


There is a campaign underway that is not about electing our next federal parliament. Though intrinsically linked because political leadership and political will determine the success or failure of this campaign, Canadians have awoken to something bigger than themselves. We have been reminded of who we are as a people, privileged, generous and eager to do our part in stemming the tide of human misery as visited on our fellow human beings from the Middle-east and Africa. We woke up one morning in the last days of summer to the image that spoke a million names: The image of little boy lying on a beach with the waters of the Mediterranean lapping against his unmoving body. This image galvanized the world and Canadians and reminded us of our long and proud tradition as a people of opening our doors to those in need of political and economic shelter.

Campaigns like Lifeline Syria that came into being months before this image and other initiatives by various social justice groups and individual activists- from the Canadian Council for Refugees to Sponsorship Agreement Holders, Amnesty International to Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and Councils like OCASI and CISSA-ACSEI have been inundated by individuals and organizations and politicians wanting to know what they can do. Where they can donate funds? How they can make even a smidgen of a difference to alleviate the suffering flashing across their television and computer screens in a twenty-four hour news cycle.

Last month, in this space I reminded us that Canada's People won the Nansen Award for our magnificent show of solidarity with the world's most vulnerable as was represented by the Indo-Chinese/Vietnamese people at that time. And campaigns like Lifeline Syria and campaign 20k2020 We Can Do More, are opportunities to once again forge a social contract amongst ourselves and our governments to open our doors to those in need of asylum and protection. This remains true and we are seeing examples of this from coast to coast to coast.

Municipal leaders recognizing that they have a critical role to play in settling and ‘integrating' refugees are publicly demonstrating their commitment to this cause through personal participation in sponsorship groups, convening information sessions, pledging funds, and advocating for the federal government to move swiftly on a resettlement plan for the hundreds of thousands in the refugee camps and the cities and towns of neighboring Mid-East countries. Provinces and their premiers have pledged funds and program responses once the refugees arrive and for humanitarian support through UNHCR and other UN programs. All federal parties have put out numbers of Syrian refugees they will take in per year if elected, ranging from ten to twenty-five thousand.

The federal government has finally heeded the call from Canadians. On a rainy Saturday afternoon in east Toronto, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander, took time from campaigning to outline the government's plan for responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. The announcement was a mix of initiatives for both Syrian and Iraqi refugees. It is disappointing that key recommendations from civil society organizations like emergency airlifts of Syrians have been rejected outright and there is silence on others like the expediting of resettlement for those with family in Canada; however others have been adopted and are part of the plan. The Plan includes:

  • All Syrians outside their country (“fleeing the conflict”) will be considered ‘prima facie' refugees
  • UNHCR designation of convention refugee, will not be required for Group of five sponsorship
  •  Processing times will be reduced to six months for applications received as of the announcement of the plan. The Government has set a target of four thousand Syrian refugees by end of 2015 and says it will meet its target of 23,000 Iraqis by end of 2015 as well.
  • Overall, 10,000 will be resettled by September 2016.
  • More officers will be on the ground in the countries surrounding Syria and Iraq (Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon) as well as in Canada.
  • Focus of officers in the Middle-East will be on screening for security, identification and medical admissibility.
  • Priority will be given to undefined ‘vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities'.
  • A senior official will soon be named as a special coordinator for Syrian refugees. “This coordinator will work with other levels of government, government and private sponsors and other key partners (stakeholders) to ensure these refugees receive the settlement support they need” (from CIC FCRO-Integration Branch memo to sector) . The Coordinator will also link Canadians interested in helping refugees to sponsorship organizations.

While welcome, the plan falls short in terms of an emergency response to a critically urgent situation. There have been calls for between 10-25K refugees to be resettled by the end of 2015 and for the government to ramp up its overall refugee and asylum program by meeting a target of 20k government sponsored refugees per year by 2020. This is doable.

A powerful Open Letter by prominent former government ministers and senior bureaucrats from immigration to security to finance departments has been released confirming Canada's capacity to respond immediately to the crisis. All opposition political parties are in support of a more robust response. A majority of Canadians want and expect us to do more.

All Canadians concerned about the suffering, fear and desperation we see cross our screens on a daily basis must speak up and encourage our government to act -to act quickly and efficiently. This is not a political partisan issue and should not be turned into a political football of point scoring during this election campaign. We need an all Party, all Canadian response. We know what must be done. We only have to find the political will to get it done. 

We are heartened that the Department of Citizenship and Immigration recognizes communication and coordination amongst the various players including the refugee and immigrant serving sector, provinces and territories and municipalities is key to the resettlement plan and has pledged its commitment to working with the various stakeholders to ensure the successful coordination of facilitating resettlement efforts. The work continues.

In Solidarity