On the first night of the Liberal government’s Syrian refugee airlift in December, every television station in Toronto had a camera crew at Pearson International Airport looking for jittery Middle Eastern families awaiting the deliverance of their loved ones.
By coincidence, on Dec. 10, Neil Jones was also waiting for refugees at the airport – a brother and sister from the Ivory Coast he was helping to sponsor through his Toronto-area church.
At one point in the evening, a broadcast reporter approached Mr. Jones for an interview. With their anxious air and expectant smiles, his group was just the kind to fill airtime before the government planes started arriving from Beirut. But when the reporter discovered that their refugees were Ivorian, the interview was dropped.
The experience piqued Mr. Jones. A laconic Englishman, he didn’t especially want to be on TV, but he thought that it was silly for the suffering of one group to be prioritized over another’s.
“We have to be aware that Syria isn’t the only problem in the world,” he said later in the night, amid the gleaming white tile of the Terminal 1 arrivals lounge. “There are refugees from all over the world and we mustn’t forget that.”
The phrase could be a slogan for the growing number of sponsors and settlement workers who feel that refugees from other parts of the world are being neglected amid the clamour to help people fleeing Syria.
It’s a sentiment that many air gingerly to avoid seeming churlish about what they see as an encouraging pro-refugee stand from the new government, directed toward worthy recipients.
But as Immigration Minister John McCallum trumpets the fulfilment of his pledge to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February, and sets refugee-arrival targets for the rest of the year, those concerns are being aired more vocally.
“We’ve been hearing it for a long time from our members across the country,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “There’s been a kind of favouring of Syrians against other refugees.”
Critics say the bias extends from government policy to media coverage to aid from members of the public.
Ms. Dench noted a program at Montreal’s Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec to give Syrian refugees tours of the enormous public library.
“It sounded like a great program,” she said, “but, eep, why only Syrian?”
A range of government programs or exemptions have also targeted Syrian asylum-seekers to the exclusion of others. The 25,000 Syrian refugees brought in between November and February will have their travel costs waived, the federal government announced last year, while refugees from other countries will still have to repay the transportation loans they typically receive.
Last September, meanwhile, the Conservative government temporarily exempted Syrians and Iraqis from the requirement to have proof of refugee status before being privately sponsored by Canadians.
“On the one hand, wonderful for these Syrian refugees who are exempted, but on the other hand it raises the equity issue,” Ms. Dench said.
Those who question the emphasis on Syria are careful to couch their criticism, leery of seeming to begrudge favourable policies toward people who have escaped a terrible war. Rather, the tendency is toward wishing for those policies to be extended to others as well.
“It’s not as if we want to say, ‘Let’s make everybody suffer,’” Ms. Dench said.
The government argues that it has continued to support refugees from around the world, even as its Syrian policy has ramped up.
“It is important to remember that we have never stopped processing applications for other refugee populations while the Syrian resettlement initiative was ongoing,” Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, wrote in a statement. “In 2015, Canada completed two multiyear resettlement commitments including welcoming more than 23,800 Iraqi refugees and 6,500 Bhutanese refugees.”
Still, the perceived hypocrisy of catering particularly to people from one part of the world clearly rankles many who work on refugee issues.
Toronto resident Maureen Smith is part of a group sponsoring a man who fled Sudan during that country’s civil war, after his family was killed by the Janjaweed militia.
In Jordan, where he sought refuge, racism toward black Africans runs high.“They’re in more danger in Jordan than the Syrians in Jordan – by far,” Ms. Smith said. “They’re in a far more desperate plight.”
But the Sudanese man – whose name she asked to be withheld for his safety – has encountered delays in his Canadian asylum application that she attributes in part to the priority being given to Syrian refugees.
“I would say the Syrian situation – and forgive me for using the word – but it’s a sexier situation to report on,” Ms. Smith said. “Is it unconscious racism? I don’t know. But it’s definitely unfair, however you want to couch it.”
Unfortunately for refugees from Africa – the “forgotten continent,” as it’s known by Canadian refugee workers – Ms. Smith’s attitude is relatively unusual. More common, according to some who work in the field, is an absolute preference for Syrian asylum-seekers.
Martin Mark, director of the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto’s office for refugees, said many would-be sponsors lose interest if the refugee in question is not Syrian. “A lot of people insist – and even now we have 40 groups who insist – on sponsoring Syrian refugees,” he said. “As a human being, it’s disturbing for me. We don’t sponsor because we want to be happy, we sponsor because we want to save lives.”
In a best-case scenario, Mr. Mark said, the public interest in Syrian refugees will trickle down to others. “I hope that it’s not just a moment of fashion,” he said. “We have capacity for both. It’s not either/or.”
Many others echoed this. There is a belief, or at least a wish, that the wave of sympathy for Syrians fleeing home will lead to a permanent liberalization of Canadian refugee policy.
“I think the Syrian initiative has built our capacity and shown us what we can accomplish,” said Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. “I’m hoping the government will apply those lessons to other refugee communities.
“We shouldn’t be pitting one against the other,” she added.Report Typo/Error