As the war in Syria grinds into its fourth year, its ultimate outcome is anyone’s guess. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fighters and rebel forces are locked in a stalemate. Ditto for negotiations around a political solution, with the so-called “Geneva II” talks stalled. The break-up of Syria into regime- and militia-controlled areas or the total collapse of the state is possible, though neither scenario appears imminent.
But there is one thing we know with certainty: The conflict in Syria is the largest humanitarian crisis of our generation. Out of a population of 21.4 million people, 9.3 million are in need of assistance, according to UN figures. The crisis has generated 2.6 million refugees, who are flooding neighbouring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. By Christmas, that number will likely increase to 4.1 million, more than were caused by the Rwandan genocide.
Given the scale and scope of the crisis, Canada should be doing significantly more to accept and resettle Syrian refugees. Last year, Ottawa committed to take in a meagre 1,300 – a number that includes up to 1,100 private sponsorships and the government resettlement of 200 extremely vulnerable cases. Only a small number have arrived so far.
Why the holdup? Part of the problem, says Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, is that it has taken time for the UN to identify and refer the most urgent cases to Ottawa. Private-sponsorship arrangements have also proved onerous to negotiate. But the most important question is whether 1,300 is the best Canada can do. In the past, Canada has been much more generous. In 1999, Canada resettled more than 5,000 Kosovo refugees. In 1992, Canada resettled 5,000 Bosnian refugees. In 1979, Ottawa sponsored 4,000 Vietnamese boat people. The response to Syria seems paltry by comparison.
It is also out of step with Canada’s broader answer to the crisis. On other counts, Ottawa’s stance on Syria has been the gold standard. It has consistently condemned violations of international law, called for those committing crimes against civilians to be held accountable and pushed for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. Canada has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and development assistance for Syria.
This week in Ottawa, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres is expected to ask Mr. Alexander to do more for Syrian refugees. Canada has the capacity, and Mr. Alexander and the government should say “Yes.”