The fault with fearing refugees

Syria may be a security risk, but there is a historical precedent and rationale for welcoming its refugees



In the spring of 1981, a 32-year-old high school teacher from Mississauga, Ont., named Paul Fromm publicly denounced Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government’s admission of 60,000 Vietnamese refugees. By bringing in so many of those fleeing communist rule in that war-torn country, Fromm said, Trudeau was leading “Canada a long way down the road of socialism” and bringing “a racial problem” to these shores.

Fromm, who also served as treasurer for the umbrella group representing Toronto-area Progressive Conservative riding associations, was quickly denounced by his own party and the governing Liberals. Yet his broader point—that an influx of people from an unstable country was an imminent threat to Canada—held a certain sway in mainstream political discourse.

Two years before, the National Citizens’ Coalition, a conservative lobby group, took out full-page newspaper ads that warned that Canada would be overrun by “at least 750,000 [Vietnamese] in the not too distant future” should the initial refugees be allowed in. Even the Toronto Star, long a bastion of liberal and Liberal party thought, cautioned North America and Europe against “fling[ing] their doors open to this displaced humanity.”

“A Vietnamese peasant would find it all but impossible to adjust himself to this different world, culture and climate,” wrote the paper’s editorial board in 1978.

Time is humanity’s best punchline. The National Citizens’ Coalition became the ideological crucible of one Stephen Harper, whose last, losing election campaign to be prime minister for a fourth term was notably marked by fears of creeping Islamism and a corresponding reticence to open the borders to Syrian refugees. The Toronto Star is even more achingly liberal than before, so much so that I doubt the paper would even jokingly question the Vietnamese peasant’s ability to survive a Canadian snowstorm. Paul Fromm, meanwhile, has since become one of this country’s most notorious white supremacists.

And nearly 35 years later, another Trudeau has sparked a similar debate over those attempting to escape yet another bloody war. Justin Trudeau made it a campaign pledge to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada by year’s end, a promise to which he has held fast, despite political pressure in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

You’d think that the prospect of helping desperate people escape a homicidal government and a host of equally homicidal terrorist groups would be a political no-brainer. Certainly, that is how it seems now with the emigration of “boat people” to Canada in 1980. Yet now as in 1978, anxiety, disdain and outright hatred for the idea (and sometimes the refugees themselves) have entered mainstream political discourse.

“Quite simply, just because these refugees are from Syria and have Arab-sounding names, there is an uninformed opinion that because of this they are potential terrorists,” says Ron Atkey, the architect of the Canadian government’s “boat people” plan of 1979, and who is advising the current Trudeau government on its Syrian plan.

As in 1979, the main concern seems to be security. This crop of prospective refugees comes from Syria, “a country steeped in very evil terrorism,” as Conservative MP Candice Bergen helpfully pointed out to me recently. She worries that ISIS is lurking amidst them, and is “embarrassed and sickened” by Trudeau.

“What is the screening process?” she asked of the would-be refugees. “Where are they screened? How are they screened? How do we know who is coming here? Those are legitimate questions.”

They are, so I asked. The 25,000 refugees will be drawn from displaced persons camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, and will be screened by Canadian visa and immigration officers. “We are being diligent in taking appropriate steps to ensure that security considerations are incorporated into our efforts and no compromises are made,” says Public Safety spokesperson Zarah Malik.

Related: Here’s the five-step UNHCR screening process for resettling refugees

Women and children are the majority in these camps, Atkey says, if only because the men have either gone off to fight or have died. And with some 10,000 km of land and ocean between us, Canada has the virtue of geography. Unlike, say, Greece, where refugees tend to come in border-busting hordes, we have the pick of the litter, to use a terrible analogy. “It worked well in ’79 and ’80, and it will work now,” Atkey says.

Of course, no system is perfect. Nothing is. All we can do is rely on historical precedent. Despite widespread concerns, neither increased criminality or a communist insurgency accompanied those 60,000 Vietnamese refugees. Today, Canada’s Vietnamese population stands at about 220,000—less than a third of the National Citizens’ Coalition’s dire prediction. Among them are politicians, writers, artists and Olympians. If this is anyone’s nightmare, it’s Chairman Mao’s.

Syria undoubtedly poses a security risk. Yet it takes a particularly blinkered sort of logic to come to the conclusion that its people are terrorists in waiting. Again, a bit of history: Canada has accepted roughly 2.5 million refugees and immigrants over the last 10 years alone, according to Statistics Canada data. The country’s Muslim population has doubled every one of the last three decades. And yet the two Islamist terrorist attacks, including that on the Parliament buildings last year, were perpetuated by born-and-bred Canadian converts to that religion.

No, Syrians are running because they are desperate. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights data, close to 200,000, including 20,000 children, have been killed since 2015—the vast majority by the Syrian regime. If it isn’t the regime they are fleeing, it’s the hundreds of armed groups that constitute the rebellion against it. Time only means more bloodshed. Right now is the worst time to be thinking the worst of Syria’s myriad victims.

Related: Refugees near Paris issue their grief as attacks follow them


The fault with fearing refugees

  1. Aiding and providing sanctuary to refugees is one of our highest values. Always has been.

    • One needs only to research the horrors happening in Europe to come to the conclusion that these are not refugees they are 80% migrant men 18-35 coming from Turkey where they are safe. There are very few women and children. They are here to invade, out populate and make this an Islamic state. They HATE Westerners, they are violent, (like children having a tantrum when they dont get their way) unappreciative, criminals that are raping women and young girls at extrordinary rates. (Sweeden rapes up 1400%!!! They come for the free welfare, free house, car and money. I dont know what the European leaders are up to (actually I kind of do but will not imply) but they certainly are not putting their citizens safety first and the word Treason has been implied in reference to the German leader. I do not solely fear ISIS or the odd terrorist because the actions of these migrants are all terrorizing. They mock the citizens and throw feces at them chant their Allah and say f**k the police. Am I allowed to carry a gun to protect my family. Canadians are way to passive and politically correct to protect themselves. Also, I find it offensive that you compare these people to any other refugees or immigrants. Tell Trudeau he can move them into his home with his children! (Just make sure they are fenced in) Here is a very interesting video that will change any Canadians mind….http://www.breitbart.com/london/2015/11/11/watch-anti-migrant-video-going-viral-across-europe/

      • Did you even read the article. These refugees are being selected in displaced persons camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon where they have been for up to three years. As to your video recommendation. These are not legitimate bias free journalists, Breitbart is a wing of the Tea-Party. It’s like getting a critique of slavery from a Louisiana Plantation owner

        • These morons don’t care about things like “facts”, nor that their fear-mongering of Muslims is exactly what IS wants. Preaching anti-Islam BS is just a small step below actively cheering IS on as far as them achieving their ends go. I wish they’d think about that before opening their mouths.

          (This is not to say that we can’t acknowledge or talk about the actual history of Islam, as opposed to the BS versions that right-wingers spout, but it’s not germane to the issue of helping vulnerable people escape a terrible situation.)

  2. It is not the acceptance of refugees but rather the timeline imposed….25000 in 6 weeks. Never mind security checks. How can we do proper medical checks and start treatments for those with serious communicable diseases like TB and HIV. Apparently, they will all be sent to Canadian military because we have no where else large enough to provide immediate, short-term housing. Are they going to live in hangers or do we kick the single military men out of the barracks to live in tents in the middle of a Canadian winter which is what the rumor mill is claiming. Why not slow it down a bit and perhaps wait until spring. Get the ones out that are in real danger and talk to countries that do not have a cold winter about taking more immediately…like the US south, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. Taking them at Christmas is a crappy idea unless Canadians are actually offering to open their homes or the feds are going to renovate closed hotels.

    • Cheezus….do you have anymore hare-brained excuses?

    • Not including how long it took to bring 60,000 Vietnamese refugees to Canada makes this a not terribly useful comparison w.r.t. timelines. One article I google suggested a 2 year period. If that is correct, that means a per-processing time that is significantly longer than what the government is now proposing.

      • Yes, odd how they never mention that the government is the most bureaucratic institution in the world but it can move mountains under Justin….I do not buy it. I work for the government. It took three weeks to get a broken tap fixed in a bathroom. Nothing moves fast. It takes almost a year to see a specialist in some provinces and how long does it take to process disability paper work…it is one huge bureaucracy but not under Justin. BS. We should already be buying cannabis in liquor stores and those CF-18 fighter jets should be back on the tarmac in Cold Lake. Neither has happened but the boy wonder has his done a photo shoot for Vogue Magazine.

        • Posting the same link over-and-over again only goes to prove that your mind is closed and nailed shut.

    • Perhaps you should consider the scale we’re talking about. 25,000 refugees, 35,000,000 Canadians. That’s a 0.07% increase in our population. Rental vacancies in our country are well north of 1%. We can accommodate.

    • Perhaps you should consider the scale we’re talking about. 25,000 refugees, 35,000,000 Canadians. That’s a 0.07% increase in our population. Rental vacancies in our country are well north of 1%. We can accommodate.

    • Perhaps you should consider the scale we’re talking about. 25,000 refugees, 35,000,000 Canadians. That’s a 0.07% increase in our population. Rental vacancies in our country are well north of 1%. We can accommodate.

    • Perhaps you should consider the scale we’re talking about. 25,000 refugees, 35,000,000 Canadians. That’s a 0.07% increase in our population. Rental vacancies in our country are well north of 1%. We can accommodate.

    • Perhaps you should consider the scale we’re talking about. 25,000 refugees, 35,000,000 Canadians. That’s a 0.07% increase in our population. Rental vacancies in our country are well north of 1%. We can accomodate.

      • We took in over 70,000 Vietnamese boat people…..and nobody even noticed……and we had less than 35M then.

  3. So Candice Bergen is “embarrassed and sickened” by Prime Minister Trudeau. Well, many people are “embarassed and sickened” by her and the attitudes displayed by people like her. These opposition politicians are simply playing politics with the issue. If they want to know what the process is they could you know, research it – just like media outlets are doing. You would think that these people who have been in political life for a numbe of years would have developed the necessary skills to ask questions, but no, why bother when you can attempt to score cheap political points.
    (And this is a woman who’s thinking about running for leader of the Con party – jeesh!!!)

  4. I’m more worried about the incoming Syrian children and their future
    children, who may be discriminated against in society and employment.
    And as a result will become isolated and reduced to living in poverty.
    These future young Muslim men will be vulnerable to radicalization.

    • Canada has a great track record for integrating immigrants. I’m sure they’ll do fine.

    • I taught the children of a Syrian refugee family a few years ago. They came from Aleppo. They already spoke French and English before they arrived in Canada. Dad was an engineer but drove cab when they first arrived so that the kids could keep their education going. The two eldest kids are currently at the U of Alberta, and dad got his engineering qualifications accepted. The family is fully integrated into the small northern city that they decided to call home.

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