Refugees and the long political journey

A happy ending to the at times ugly debate over admitting and processing Syrian refugees.

Newly-arrived Syrian refugee Anjilik Jaghlassian, centre, and her family receive winter clothes and other items at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Newly-arrived Syrian refugee Anjilik Jaghlassian, centre, and her family receive winter clothes and other items at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Given where they are coming from, those 7,300 Syrian refugees who will arrive in Montreal by the end of 2016 will likely welcome the display of banal Canadian bureaucracy set up in their honour. They will taxi into Trudeau airport and be taken to a special screening area where they will interviewed, fingerprinted and examined by a medical practitioner. Their documents will be checked once again for authenticity, and their bags for verboten foodstuffs.

They will then be bussed to one of two Library and Archives Canada buildings 10 km away, especially converted for their arrival. The federal government will give them a social insurance number; the provincial government, a health insurance number and a crash course on immigration, diversity and inclusion. The Red Cross will give families teddy bears, blankets and Pampers. In the space of four hours, a plane load of Syrian refugees will become permanent residents of Canada.

“There is an enthusiasm from all departments that we were able to help bring Syrian refugees here,” said Vito Vassallo, a director with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, as he led a tour of about 30 journalists through the prefab guts of the place.

It is, quite literally, like winning the lottery. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, there are currently 4.2 million Syrian refugees—nearly five per cent of the country’s pre-war population—in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, living in varying degrees of distress. A total of 188,502 Syrians—about the population of Regina—have been killed as a result of the four-year conflict, the vast majority at the hands of Assad’s governmental forces, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Given all this, I asked Vassallo, a 27-year CIC veteran, why the Canadian government took so long to get comparatively few suffering souls to this country. “I can’t answer that, it’s a political question,” he said, with a hint of a smile.

Unfortunately, Vassallo is right, and his non-answer is a reminder of what happens when a life-or-death issue of refugees gets fed into the cauldron of partisan politics, then further distilled by an at-times ugly election campaign. In a sense, the machinations by which potential refugees are sorted and selected should be as apolitical as, say, getting one’s licence renewed. Yet as the previous Conservative government demonstrated, there was a distinct attempt to shape and direct the work of its civil servants here and overseas when it came to the victims of the crisis in Syria.

Last January, Stephen Harper’s government announced plans to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years. Yet several months later, only about 10 per cent of this number had been admitted—in part, it seems, because of a directive from Harper’s office itself that attempted to halt the screening process. At the time, it was presented as a security measure “to ensure the integrity of our refugee referral system,” as Chris Alexander, then the citizenship and immigration minister, put it at the time.

Numerous sources, including one with first-hand knowledge of the processing of refugees, said the directive was less about security than about ensuring that Christian minorities took precedence over Muslims. “You got the feeling they were trying to cherry-pick religious minorities,” one source said. (Syria, which is majority Sunni Muslim, has a sizable Christian minority.)

It took the picture of Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach, for the government to slacken the reins somewhat. Because Kurdi’s family was trying to reach Canada, the political intonations on the Harper election campaign were profound. On Sept. 10, eight days after the picture made headlines worldwide, the government waived the stipulation that “resettlement candidates” must provide information regarding why they fled their country of origin.

“Going forward, unless there is evidence to the contrary, visa officers will be able to presume those fleeing the conflict meet the definition of a refugee, which will make processing faster,” reads a CIC briefing document.

There is a certain irony in this. The  government to first make a significant security-related change to the processing of refugees—arguably making it easier for Syrians and Iraqis to make it to these shores—was that of the ostensibly security-first, tough-on-terror Stephen Harper. And he did so as a political calculation, out of fear of losing an election.

Meanwhile, the “security concerns” that supposedly prevented the Harper government from increasing the numbers of refugees brought to Canada were seemingly a partisan mirage. “There have been no shortcuts to the process. They’ve accelerated it in the sense that they’ve sent over additional personnel,” Tim Bowen, chief of operations for Canadian Border Services Agency, told me. According to CIC staff, this includes the addition of some 500 officials deployed overseas to help with the effort, including between 50 and 70 visa officers.

Thankfully, there is a happy ending. First and foremost, refugees are finally arriving. Secondly, the Conservatives are critiquing the effort exactly as they should: on purely financial grounds. The refugee resettlement program will cost $671 million. It is a huge amount of money, and Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel promised to hold the government to account. “It is one thing to inspire Canadians, it’s another thing to be accountable to them,” she said.

That Rempel said as much without a fear-mongering whisper about “security concerns” shows how far the party has come in two months.

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