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The Syrian refugee situation exploded in the federal election campaign seemingly out of the blue. But it's actually a crisis that has been unfolding for several years, while the Harper government has been significantly reducing the overall number of refugees Canada accepts each year. The ONW Salon assesses how the leaders have handled the Syrian refugee issue on the campaign trail.


John Capobianco:

The tragic death of the little boy, Alan Kurdi, a Syrian who died along with his mother and five year old brother in a failed attempt to escape to Greece, has touched the world. It was an upsetting picture on the front pages of newspapers around the globe, which showed the little boy's lifeless body on the shores of Turkey's beach in Bodrum. Many people were rightly outraged at this sight, including many Canadians.

No one can imagine such a thing happening to such a defenseless little boy and would never expect to see it in the front pages of the newspapers. Hence the outcry. However, the unfortunate circumstance is that Alan Kurdi is not likely the only child to have had his or her life taken away in failed attempts to flee Syria or as a result of the civil war. In fact, according to the UN more than 200,000 people have died since 2011 in clashes between President Bashar al-Assad's government and rebel forces.

This has been going on for years and way too may people — young and old, have died as a result of these clashes — only to be made worse when, in 2014, ISIS moved into eastern Syria and was able to maneouver itself into gaining ground.

Many European countries have been taking in refugees, some more than others (Germany being the standout country with the widest of the open doors).

In Canada, we too have opened our doors - the PM made a commitment back in January to resettle 10,000 people and again during the campaign to resettle another 10,000. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has gone to Ottawa to assess the situation.


Richard Mahoney:

I spent several years of my life practicing refugee law, and remain involved in those issues. I have spent time in the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, where over 350,000 people live.

According to the UN, there are over 60 million refugees in the world right now. The tragedy is indeed a global one and it is fair to say that governments around the world are struggling, and in many cases, failing in their responses.  The one thing we have seen in recent days and weeks are governments starting to step up under public pressure.

The terrible story of Alyan Kurdi shone a bright light on the record of the Harper government, and their record is a sorry one. It doesn't start with the fact that Minister Alexander failed to act after he and his department received an appeal from a local MP about the case. It doesn't end with Minister Alexander's shallow response when he was first interviewed about it, falsely blaming media. It starts with a government that has been attempting to restrict Canada's response to refugees, reduce the number that Canada allows, and reduce our capacity to admit them altogether.

Finally, as governments around the world begin to make extraordinary efforts to take significant numbers, Harper and his party continue to stall, and make no effort to step up. We should all feel a little ashamed.  

Marit Stiles:

John is right that this crisis is not "new". The number of refugees fleeing Syria is staggering: more than 4 million refugees and the displacement of more than 7.6 million Syrians within the country itself. It is sadly ironic that it may have taken one photo of one child to bring the world’s attention to bear, as countless more children and their families risk their lives and lose their lives at this very moment.

So how did the leaders do? Well some have been accused of "politicizing" this crisis and the plight of the refugees. But political pressure, in a democracy, is what it takes sometimes to make the kind of policy change that saves lives. It’s also the true test of a leader, I believe, to be able to move forward and embrace change when it’s needed. That kind of pragmatism, flexibility and frankly vision has been lacking in our current government.

Mr. Harper showed in the past week remarkable stubbornness in the face of all reason. A disappointing response to the international cry for Canada to welcome Syrian refugees in greater numbers, to say the least.

Furthermore, his pivot to Canada’s military role was the kind of cynical response Canadians have come to expect from a Prime Minister and government who have consistently closed their ears to the cries of Canadians and the international community to open our country’s doors.

None of this is surprising. We have a minister in Chris Alexander who has gone so far as to shamelessly promote a myth, over recent years, of large numbers of "bogus" claimants overburdening the system, while attempting to cut refugee claimants off healthcare, and deporting massive numbers of them.

In stark contrast, Mulcair immediately proposed a plan of action. Working with advocacy groups and thousands of Canadians, he has called on the Harper government to open Canada’s doors to more Syrian refugees, bringing more than 46,000 into Canada over the next 4 years, supporting resettlement and helping remove bureaucratic obstacles.  


John Capobianco:

The good news in this rather ugly and painful situation is that the world has awoken to the Syrian refugee crisis and it is at least talking about and at most acting on it.

The bad news however, as Richard states, is that the Syrian refugee crisis is but a drop in the world bucket. So governments around the world, especially those in Europe and the Middle East, need to act and some have been. Closer to home, the U.S. has been largely absent in this debate, but Canada has and will continue to do more.

Marit mentions that some have been accused of politicizing the issue.  Well that is exactly what happened when the picture of Alan Kurdi hit the papers. The Opposition parties were so quick to point the finger at the PM, suggesting it was his fault, even though back in January — way before the election call and before the opposition had a position on this, the PM announced a commitment of 10,000 refugees and another 10,000 recently.

Yes, we need to do more — everyone does. But throwing around numbers without much thought is not going to help. Accelerating the process times of refugee applications will help, but more importantly, recognizing that ISIS is also to blame here and trying to deal with that threat is something this government has committed to and has continually asked for the opposition to support.

To solve this problem, you can't just open the doors — you need to provide stability in the region. You need to do both.

It is hopeful that the untimely and unnecessary death of Alan Kurdi has created a worldwide willingness to do something about the Syrian situation. There is no better time to discuss this without politicizing it, despite the election.


Richard Mahoney:

The reality of the situation is the Conservatives have substantially reduced the number of refugees we take every year. In the sad case of the Kurdi family, the Conservatives went so far as to suggest that the Kurdi family had failed to complete the application form, complete with proof of sponsoring groups and individuals here in Canada, as if that is a practical thing for this family, and so many others who are fleeing for their lives.

Refugees are people who fear persecution and are unable to get protection from their country of origin. By definition, they rarely have access to sponsors!

What are the other leaders doing about this? Well, Justin Trudeau says we could take 25,000 Syrian refugees this year. We have taken about 1,000 - 2,000 over the last couple of years, a meager and pathetic response. If we had leadership that cared about this issue, we would do as this country has done before in previous crises — we would dispatch Immigration officials to where the refugees are — and help those people by processing them and beginning to admit a reasonable number.

Even this week, after all of this attention, the government refuses to do that. If they were at all serious about this, they would do this now, as some European governments are doing. Then, when they arrive on our shores, we would help them settle. That is an appropriate, reasonable and humanitarian response.

Finally, we would not do, as Mr. Harper’s government did, and move to cut off refugee claimants’ health care, in a transparently cheap and unconstitutional attempt to score political points. That really was shameful.

We can do so much better in this country on refugees. We need leadership to do that, and we have not had it.


Marit Stiles:

Well, I need to address John's comment on the other leaders' reactions after the photo came out.

John, I think the other leaders were pretty careful not to cast "blame" on the Prime Minister. Mulcair spoke with understandable emotion about the photo but then went right to what we should be doing, and rightly avoided attacking what had been the PM’s policy to date.

The fact that Stephen Harper and Chris Alexander decided to go on the defensive instead of reaching out and making a difference is just indicative of the kind of government we currently have.

I think this may have been a wake up call for many Canadians. Over the long weekend, families gathered and many likely reflected on how fortunate we are, talked about how we could individually help, and likely the conversation turned to what our government should and could be doing.

To not do anything more seems, well, seems simply unacceptable. To say that we are fighting on the ground and that this is where we will make the most gains is absurd. The problem of refugees seeking asylum right now will not be solved this way.

Harper could have taken more action, could have done what so many Canadians are doing and come up with new ideas, new solutions, anything to help. But instead he dug in. His minister came back to Ottawa to — what?

This is a government that has politicized refugee policy, inflicted their own political views on who is "deserving" of our protection and who is not. They have used fear mongering to convince Canadians that we are overwhelmed with "bogus" claimants, when the evidence is simply to the contrary.

Mulcair said it best: "We should be a little bit less partisan and start concentrating on helping people who are in desperate need". Sadly Harper chose a different approach.  


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