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Jeffrey Simpson: The refugee discussion is just beginning

The commitment to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada before Dec. 31, made by the Liberals in the heat of an election campaign, should be seen not as the end but as the beginning of a multiyear commitment to bring tens and tens of thousands more refugees to Canada over many years.

Quite apart from whether the government can meet its artificial and politically driven timetable for the 25,000, the larger question is whether the government and the Canadian people are willing, ready and able to handle much bigger numbers in the years ahead. No one has thought about this, let alone prepared for it. Circumstances, however, will force reflection.

This 25,000 contingent, and the many who will follow if the government sticks to its policies, is not like, say, previous groups of refugees from Vietnam, Uganda or Kosovo. These groups were much smaller in number, displaced by one event at a given place. By contrast, there were three-day periods throughout the summer and fall when more refugees/migrants were landing on the Greek island of Lesbos than Canada proposes to admit in two months.

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Today's refugees/migrants are part of a mass movement of millions of people fleeing military conflict, entrenched poverty and government breakdowns across an arc of states in the Middle East and Africa. Climate change is already widening desertification, which causes people to leave drought in search of food.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are now about 60 million refugees around the world, and that number is almost certainly going to rise. Since large countries such as China, Russia and Japan (and many others) either don't want refugees/migrants, or refugees/migrants don't wish to go there, the mass movement will head to countries with advanced economies and liberal democratic traditions.

The migration that landed almost a million people in Europe this year did not come from war-torn Syria alone, where an estimated six to eight million people are displaced internally and millions more live in camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The migration comes from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and other African countries.

There are those who are leaving their native lands and those who wish to join them. A Gallup poll, for example, reported that a quarter of Afghanistan's population said it wanted to leave, following on the heels of an estimated 100,000 who have left this year.

Another Gallup poll, taken from 2009 to 2011, and reported in The New York Times, said 40 per cent of Nigeria's residents would leave if they could. That poll was taken before the insurgent/terrorist group Boko Haram began wreaking havoc on villages and cities in the north of Africa's most populous country.

There are no signs yet of any movement toward peace and stability in countries wracked by insurrections, clan fighting and terrorism. The Taliban remain active in many of Afghanistan's provinces. Iraq, a thoroughly failed state, cannot oust the Islamic State from its midst. Nor can Syria, which is also divided among a welter of militias and other forces hostile to each other and the government in Damascus.

Fighting roars on in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia now intervening and the United States using drone strikes. Libya, where Western countries including Canada ousted former president/dictator Moammar Gadhafi, has dissolved into warring clans. Egypt is plagued by IS, or groups claiming to be associated with IS, in the Sinai. Civil war rocks Congo.

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Palestinians live in the hellhole that is Gaza and watch land they believe to be theirs devoured by Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The incentives for some of them to depart are obvious.

Mass movements debilitate countries that lose people because among them are some of the best-educated and most skilled. They have the money and wherewithal to depart. The countries they leave behind are, therefore, deprived of some of their best and brightest, which in turn makes it harder for these countries to succeed and easier for them to spiral downward.

The government is preoccupied with figuring out how to bring 25,000 to Canada by Dec. 31.

Thereafter, the government and Canadians should decide if they want to bring in perhaps 10 times that number or more in the years ahead – a number that would still be only a drop in the ocean of refugees and migrants.

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