In human history, the world has never seen anything like it.
In June, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported “a staggering crisis.” The number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 as a result of war, conflict and persecution had risen to 59.5 million persons, compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.
According to the UN, Syria is the world’s biggest producer of both internally displaced people (7.6 million) and refugees (3.88 million at the end of 2014). Afghanistan (2.59 million) and Somalia (1.1 million) are the next biggest refugee source countries. In the past five years, at least 15 conflicts have erupted or reignited: eight in Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, northeastern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Burundi); three in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen); one in Europe (Ukraine); and three in Asia (Kyrgyzstan, and in several areas of Myanmar and Pakistan).
Most alarmingly, however, over half the world’s refugees are children.
I worked in Central American refugee camps in the 1980s. There, children seemed to be like children everywhere: in makeshift schools, playing and learning and getting into mischief as much as they could. But the worst off, it seemed to me, were the youth. Unable to move ahead with studies, a trade or providing for a family, it broke my heart to see their lost potential — their lives had been violently scarred and interrupted — but they now faced idleness and despair, with their future dreams put on hold.
Given the magnitude of the crisis, how are we responding to the needs of refugees today?
Canada does not accept many refugees, compared to the global need for resettlement. The government agreed to process up to 14,500 resettled refugees, out of a total of 285,000 new immigrants, in 2015. In reference to the world’s major refugee hot spot, Canada’s total commitment is to accept only 11,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017. And our government has made it much more difficult for refugees to apply for and receive asylum here.
The federal government attempted to cut the Interim Federal Health Program, which covered health services for asylum-seekers. This legislation was decried by a federal court as “cruel and inhumane” and ordered the IFHP to be re-instated. But the government contested the ruling — a final decision will be released in October. And Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) has recently produced an important report on a further federal initiative which harms refugee resettlement in Canada.
Unnoticed by many, the federal government has removed the financial penalty for imposing a residency requirement for social assistance. Such legislation was initially presented as a private member’s bill, but the sponsoring Conservative MP on three occasions declined to rise in the House to debate it! Later, hidden within the hundreds of pages of Bill C-43 — the omnibus budget implementation bill — a province or territory can now decide to withdraw welfare benefits from asylum-seekers awaiting their chance to prove they are bona fide refugees. CPJ’s study, The Invisible Victims, surveys personal testimonies from claimants. It demonstrates that not only would these individuals be unable to support themselves without social assistance, but that church groups which provide services would be negatively affected, since demands to help refugee claimants would fall on their already overstretched resources.
CPJ also reported that the leaders of eight provincial and territorial governments have stated outright that they have no intention of imposing such a residency requirement. Since provinces didn’t ask for this policy change, why would the federal government announce it?
Perhaps an answer is to be found in a survey of attitudes of Canadians toward newcomers. The Environics Institute reported in June that “federal Conservative party supporters remain among the least supportive of immigration and ethnic diversity.”
Luckily, however, that same study reported that public attitudes about immigration have remained steady or grown more positive over the last three to five years. “The public continues to believe that immigration is good for the economy, and is more confident about the country’s ability to manage refugees.”
Hopefully, Canada’s faith communities will continue to broaden support for newcomers by settling our new neighbours and advocating for refugee rights.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.