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The world is grappling with the largest refugee crisis in generations, fuelled by a brutal civil war in Syria and violent conflicts in places such as Afghanistan, Somalia and South Sudan. On Friday evening in Toronto, the semi-annual Munk Debates will tackle what has become one of the more pressing international issues of our time: Do wealthy countries have an obligation to help? Should Canada do more? How do you balance compassion and security? For a preview of the debate, The Globe and Mail's Joanna Slater spoke with two of the speakers representing opposing sides of the refugee divide

Nigel Farage FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

Nigel Farage is the leader of the UK Independence Party, a right-wing British political party that opposes membership in the European Union and favours restrictions on immigration. He is a member of European Parliament representing the South East of England. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Do countries like the United Kingdom and Canada have a moral imperative to assist refugees?

That depends what you call a refugee. The [United Nations] 1951 convention on the definition of a refugee has been thrown out the window. A refugee now is anyone who comes from a part of the world that is unstable, or indeed, if you listen to [Jean-Claude] Juncker, the European Commission President, anyone who comes from a poor country.

Is there a limit? How many refugees should Britain take in?

Given that through open-door migration from the European Union, 632,000 people settled in Britain last year, the space in our heart for genuine refugees is much smaller than it would have been historically.

So how many is the right number?

I'm going to go back to the beginning. What is a refugee? Is a refugee a young man, aged 22, from Afghanistan who thinks women are third-class citizens? Basically what we have here is a massive wave of economic migration posing as a refugee problem. And that's not to say there are no refugees, or nobody who would qualify, but the EU has completely lost its sense of any historical definition of what a refugee is.

Did German Chancellor Angela Merkel do the right thing or make a mistake in letting one million asylum-seekers into Germany last year?

The worst policy decision by any European leader since 1945.

The worst?

The worst. It was a calamitous decision that has directly led to more people fleeing, to more men deserting their wives, their families, in search of a place in the European Union.

Do you view asylum seekers from predominantly Muslim countries as a cultural challenge?

If they think women shouldn't work, shouldn't be able to dress as they please and should be relegated to a status of third-class citizens, then I think it represents a massive cultural problem.

But are such beliefs widespread among asylum seekers in Europe?

Have you seen the sexual crimes that were committed in the open streets of Cologne on New Year's Eve?


Well, there you are. You've answered your own question.

Europe has struck a deal with Turkey to stem the flows of refugees. Is that a productive approach?

If ever I'm involved in international negotiations, I would want Turkey negotiating for me. They managed to get the EU to give them billions in return for some relatively loose guarantees about fewer people coming, a 1-to-1 migrant exchange, visa-free access for 77 million Turks from July of this year, and fast-forwarded membership to the European Union. Game, set and match to Turkey.

Is there a country that can serve as a model, in your opinion, for how to handle the refugee issue?

Australia. The Aussies have got it right. They choose who they need within their economy, they make sure people haven't got criminal records, they don't give them any free health service.

What is your view of the Canadian government's move to accept more than 25,000 Syrian refugees?

Good luck!

Good luck?

Good luck! I hope you don't get 70 to 80 per cent aggressive males, who rather than being thankful for being given sanctuary, as they walk through the borders, punch the air like football supporters. Good luck.

Are you conflating the refugee question with a security issue? As far as we know, the perpetrators of the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels were all European citizens.

Many are European citizens who have been to fight in Syria and have snuck back in using this route. All of which goes to show you that Europe already has a problem through a completely failed immigration and integration policy. So why on earth would you add to a problem that already exists?

Some have said there are echoes of the Second World War in the current situation, when countries around the world were reluctant to take in Jewish refugees.

Not this country. Because we understand what a refugee is. My family were refugees. My family were French Protestants. And we're back to where this conversation starts: What is a refugee? Is it somebody who comes from a poor country? Is it somebody who comes from a war-torn country? Or is it somebody who has a genuine fear of persecution because of their race, religion or ideological beliefs? And isn't it ironic, that with all this mess that Merkel and Juncker have created, nobody but nobody has a word to say about the Christians. Nobody. If any group of people were crying out in genuine need of refugee status, it is the Middle Eastern Christians.

How does the current refugee crisis end?

We become like Australia. We say that nobody who has come to our mainland by boat will be accepted. That's what the Aussies did, and that stopped the drownings and stopped all the tragedies.

What happens to refugees who are left behind in that situation?

What the Australians did was to process genuine refugee applications elsewhere. We could do that in North Africa. I'm arguing for a return to normality so that countries control their borders and decide how many people can live and work and stay legally in their countries. I very much hope and pray that the British reject EU membership [in the upcoming referendum] on the 23rd of June and we will then return to normality and have space in our hearts for genuine refugees.

Louise Arbour Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Louise Arbour served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and as Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. From 1999 to 2004, she was a sitting justice on the Supreme Court of Canada. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Do prosperous societies like Canada have a moral imperative to assist refugees?

Actually, from my point of view, it's a little easier to frame it as a legal responsibility, which happily in this case coincides with the proper ethical one. It falls within the framework of the 1951 United Nations Convention on refugees. So we have a moral obligation, and it's fully enshrined in a legal principle.

Is there a way to determine how many refugees a place like Canada is able take in?

This is a really interesting question, but deep down, that's not the real question being asked. It's not a question of how many could we take, it's how many should we take? If you figure that Germany has taken one million and Turkey has taken three million and Lebanon has absorbed the equivalent of a quarter of its population, you know, I'm happy to talk about numbers. I think we haven't made a dent in our capacity. The real ugly debate is the old "none is too many" – where these people are described as a threat, or as incompatible with democratic values.

Did Germany's Angela Merkel do the right thing in welcoming asylum-seekers last year?

It was entirely the right thing. The part that fell short was the principle of international co-operation. All the countries that border the war theatres and all the countries at the border of Europe are in a situation that Canada cannot even begin to imagine. Unless there is a catastrophic event in the U.S., this kind of thing will not happen to us. So we need to have a particularly generous, pro-active response.

What do you make of the current Canadian government's policy? It met its target of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees.

It may look impressive, but Canada has done more in the past. We have the luxury of taking in people through resettlement programs, with prior screening, so there are a lot of security guarantees. There's no question the capacity in Canada is much larger than what has happened so far, particularly because it's a country where immigration is not a dirty word. We should resist very strongly the effort to contaminate the good spirit in Canada today by those who seek to persuade us that Muslims are different, that they're fundamentally non-democratic and threatening. We have to resist that at all costs.

How would you respond to those who claim that refugees from predominantly Muslim countries represent a cultural challenge?

All the fear of Muslim integration today is virtually identical, bizarre as it may seem, to the rhetoric in the 1950s about Catholics – they were said to be backwards, anti-democratic, hard to assimilate, threatening because of high fertility rates and living in poor, crime-ridden neighbourhoods. It's just the same stuff all over again, but today it is fuelled by the politics of fear and the war on terror. It plays right into the hands of these extremist, jihadist violent movements. They're just watching open societies self-implode by developing politics of intolerance and exclusion. We can't speak for the rest of the world, but we in Canada have an extremely successful history of integration of immigrants. Now is the time to say, "This is not different." Because what the other side wants us to believe is, well, this one is different. It's not different.

How do we make sense of what happened on New Year's Eve in Cologne?

We shouldn't be rosy-eyed and sentimental. We have to recognize that in taking in large influxes of people, we will take some of these very bad elements. We have to resist generalization. When we accepted waves of Italians, we didn't assume they were all in the Mafia, or that Asians were all in triads. On the other hand, we've had expressions of these elements in all the populations we've taken in, as we have in our own homegrown communities.

So it's inevitable that there will be some bad apples?

If we set the bar so high that they all have to be perfect otherwise we're going to lock the doors and throw everybody out, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, it's going to happen. The danger is of an exaggerated response.

Does the current refugee flow into Europe represent a security issue?

It's all part of the tactics and strategies of the violent jihadist groups to scare the West into thinking that each one of these people coming in could be a potential terrorist. The reality is considerably different. As for homegrown radicalization, some countries were very slow at recognizing the fertile conditions in which the marginalization of communities was taking place. Again, we have to have smart security measures. But we have to have smart boundaries to our security initiatives in order to not fall into a trap.

What will it take to end the current refugee crisis?

What we're seeing now in terms of an extraordinary flow of refugees speaks very loudly to the defeat of diplomatic and other efforts at resolving the conflicts in the Middle East. Elsewhere, it's economic conditions, authoritarian regimes, bad governance. When the push factors become intense enough and the pull factors remain very intense – for instance, the demand for illegal cheap labour in countries of destination – there is no wall, barbed wire or otherwise, that will prevent movement. And people will die in the Mediterranean if the pushes and pulls, combined, remain as strong as they are today.