It was recently said of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her open border policy that she is not making history, but acknowledging it. The Trudeau government has likewise chosen to acknowledge history with the promise of bringing 25,000 Syrians to Canada as government-assisted refugees, over and above planned levels. Backed by political will, imagination and a newly empowered civil service, this goal could be within our grasp.
It is not just government that is taking the lead. In response to the Syrian crisis, Canadians from all walks of life have stepped forward to put themselves, their time and their money to sponsor Syrian refugees and their families. There are now hundreds of new private sponsors-in-waiting in the Greater Toronto Area alone, groups in resident associations, school communities, in the corporate sector and universities. Across Canada, there may be hundreds more than government resources are able or willing to process.
These private sponsors are an important ally for government, complementing and supplementing the commitments of government with the commitment of private citizens. And many of them are waiting for approval of cases, files and arrivals. In addition, there are many Syrian-Canadians who know of families, friends, neighbours who are refugees and are anxious to link these cases with potential sponsors in Canada. It seems that all the magical ingredients are present to complement the arrival of many more than the 25,000 government-assisted refugees.
However, just as the arrival of 25,000 government-sponsored refugees will require political leadership, so, too, will the expediting of systems and processes that unite refugee families with their sponsors. As one promise is kept, let’s keep in mind the promises by Canadians to refugee families overseas and pay just as much attention to them. Whatever solutions the government is able to imagine for government-assisted refugees would likely apply to those with private sponsors as well.
Critics of the private sponsorship program worry that private engagement and private money allows the government to take a back seat. However, if the new government abides by the principle of additionality, which means that privately sponsored refugees enhance and are in addition to the numbers tabled for government-assisted refugees, then we have the making of a perfect private/public partnership.
And we know it works. During the Indochinese refugee crisis, the government resettled one refugee for every one who was privately sponsored, which is why the numbers rose from the initial goal of 8,000 to over 60,000 in fewer than two years. For this marvelous achievement, Canada received the Nansen medal from the UNHCR.
How can Canada regain its leadership as a country of compassion again?
Consider annual targets for refugee intake as floors and not as ceilings. Given the volatility in the world today, in Syria and in many other places, it seems that we must be flexible and nimble.
Make family reunification a cornerstone of refugee policy by working with the Canadian Syrian community and by expanding the notion of families as more than the nuclear unit. Recognize that displacement makes for chaos with families scattered across Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and others left behind in Syria.
Match the public enthusiasm for private sponsors. As private sponsorships rise, so should government-assisted refugees.
Enhance participation of private sponsors by considering a tax credit or clarifying eligibility for charitable receipts.
Expedite the arrival of refugees who are privately sponsored. The long wait periods of four to five years has been absurd and damaging. Once refugees are selected, there is a strong case to bring them to Canada immediately. A delay in resettlement is not good for sponsors, who plan for a year-long sponsorship based on current schedules, jobs, residences and family situations. Delays can unravel plans and sap goodwill. But most importantly, waiting works against the security and well-being of these future Canadians who are in limbo in fragile, sometimes hostile conditions.
All nations have their moments of regret and shame, but we never regret moments of compassion. One such moment was Canada’s response to the Indochinese refugee crisis.
Another moment is on us today. Canada has a unique opportunity to show ourselves and the world what we are made of.
Ratna Omidvar is executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University. She is also chair of Lifeline Syria.