Why Canada Should Welcome Syrian Refugees

Canadians have a responsibility to stand with those who have showed strength in the face of civil war, argue Kyle Matthews and Ecem Oskay.
By: /
June 20, 2014

Every year the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) marks World Refugee Day on June 20. It was created to educate the global public about current human rights situations pertaining to its mandate. It is also organized to galvanize support across the world for those people it helps: all those who are forced to flee their home countries because of a daily threat of persecution and violence.

While the news is filled with reports on the civil war in Syria, it is often overlooked that the country has generated the largest refugee flows in the 21st century. Between 2013 and 2014, the number of Syrian refugees rapidly increased from 500,000 to over 2 million. Additionally, 6.5 million Syrians have become internally displaced. According to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, one family is displaced within Syria every 60 seconds.

With the average rate of monthly registrations of refugees by UNHCR exceeding 100,000 people and more than 50 percent being under the age of 18, it is no secret that the Syrian conflict has become a serious humanitarian crisis. It is overwhelming neighboring countries in the region, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which together host 2.3 million Syrian refugees. Lebanon alone is now hosting one million Syrians, who now account for roughly 20 per cent of the country’s population.

With no end in sight to the conflict in Syria, finding durable solutions for the refugees is a pressing matter. The High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has repeatedly called on states to help alleviate the burden on the countries in the region and help resettle 130,000 of the 2.8 million Syrian refugees. However, responses to the pressing needs are slow and of the 21 countries, which have made official pledges to the UNHCR, only a few have lived up to their commitment.

While Canada has played a leadership role in supporting the UNHCR’s humanitarian operations, Ottawa has been less than ambitious on the resettlement issue. At the beginning of 2013, the Canadian government promised to accept 1,300 refugees, yet according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, “only nine Syrians were resettled by the government to Canada in the first eight months of 2013.”

Middle East expert and Professor at the University of Waterloo, Bessma Momani, addressed Members of Parliament during a recent hearing on Syria at the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. This particular comment of hers stands out: “We have maybe 100,000 Syrian Canadians who have businesses, who are open and wanting—I meet many of them in my day-to-day interactions—and who say, 'Please, how can I bring my family?' They say, 'I do not want a thing from the Canadian government. I just want to bring them here.' We need to start seriously thinking about that and to open our arms, as we did so many times to many immigrants throughout the world.”

During his visit to Canada this past May, Commissioner Guterres also urged Canada to open its doors to displaced Syrians. At the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa Guterres emphasized that “Canada has a proud history of welcoming refugees” and encouraged “Canada to resettle a large number of Syrian refugees.” It is worth noting that the “Canadian people” were awarded the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in 1986, the first and only national group of citizens to have been honored by UNHCR.

World Refugee Day is an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on our responsibility to stand with those individuals and families who have showed strength, courage and determination in the face of civil war, mass atrocities and persecution.

Millions of refugees dream of going home but the ongoing conflict prevents their dreams from becoming reality. Canada and its citizens must continue to support UNHCR's humanitarian operations in and around Syria. But both the Canadian state and civil society should also collaborate to ensure those refugees in real need of protection be allowed a fair chance to be resettled here, which the federal government agreed to do.

This piece also appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on June 20, 2014.