Lately we have seen a lot of media coverage on the Syrian refugee situation with heart breaking images of family fleeing and children drowning. Although the Syrian situation has dominated the newsfeed recently, we know that it only represents a fraction of the global situation when it comes to refugees. Around the world, every single day, more than 42,000 people are forced to flee their homes due to conflicts, natural disasters, oppression and persecution. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), currently there are more than 16 million refugees globally.
Canada has always played a leading role in responding to this global need. This is one of the reasons I am proud to be Canadian. Do you know that Canada is the ONLY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD with a system in place for private citizens to sponsor refugees into the country? And we have had a proud heritage for doing so. In the late 1970’s at the height of the Vietnam War, Canada had a goal to privately sponsor 5,000 refugees from that war torn nation. We ended up taking in 60,000.
Every crisis is a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. While the numbers coming out of Syria are staggering, this is also an opportunity for us to grow as a nation, to show our next generation that we have a moral responsibility on global issues. When it comes to refugee settlement, there is a lot of political rhetoric (BOTH in Canada and the US) that preaches protection of our economy. I work in the immigrant settlement sector, and I have heard countless times the well worn clichés of how immigrants (and refugees) are taking away jobs and hurting our economy. However, the fact is that despite all our wealth in North America, the vast majority of refugees globally are taken in by much poorer nations. Less than 5% of the global refugees are found in North America. Over 85% of then are taken in by nations in the Global South, in countries much, much poorer than us. For example, Pakistan hosts 10 times as many refugees as Canada.
It is time for us to step up. In the media there has been a lot of talk about how many Syrian refugees our government is committed to take in (10,000 is the latest number). However, at the same time we have a hard cap of how many refugees we will take in annually, which stands at 25,000. UNLESS that hard cap is ALSO raised, it makes no difference how many we say we will take in from Syria. We are simply only shifting one source country with another.
As part of my work I attended an open meeting at the City of Toronto yesterday on privately sponsoring Syrian Refugees. I was touched by the number of people who attended from the community. A quick glance around the room shows a high percentage of them are senior citizens. I assumed many of them were involved in the 1970’s in sponsoring refugees from Vietnam, and they are ready to step up again. Some of them said while they no longer have the energy they used to, they have some financial resources that they are ready to give to help. I was so proud of them. At the same time, I believe it is time for the next generation of Canadians to step up to our global moral responsibilities. For me, at least in part, this is why I am proud to be Canadian.