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Three ways the refugee crisis could unfold and what it means for Harper

Refugees and migrants wait for their registration and the issuing of travel documents at a soccer stadium in Mytilene, on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, on Tuesday.

Santi Palacios/associated press

The great surprise of this election thus far has been the explosion of the Syrian refugee crisis as a campaign-defining issue. According to conventional wisdom, the Conservatives have botched the situation and it will cost them support. That may or may not be true. Here are three scenarios on how things could play out over the next six weeks.

The first possibility is also the saddest: that the issue goes away. The tragic photo of Alan Kurdi horrified the world, and galvanized demands that Western governments come to the aid of the millions of Syrians displaced by civil war and Islamic State atrocities. But as aid agencies can sadly attest, our attention span is limited. The horror fades, new events displace old, people move on. The once-forgotten become forgotten again.

If that turns out to be true, then the refugee issue will diminish in importance, leaving a residual resentment of Tory callousness, but ultimately contributing no more to the campaign's outcome than what Ray Novak knew about Nigel Wright's cheque. (If you need reminding of who Ray Novak is and what he knew, consider the point made.)

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But this is the least likely scenario. The refugee crisis is escalating, and won't be disappearing from the headlines any time soon. Tens of thousands of desperate Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans continue to flood into Europe, testament to the endless, brutal civil war within Islam. European governments struggle to cope. Pressure rises on Canada to do more. Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau accuse Stephen Harper of foot-dragging and demand a large, immediate increase to the number of refugees that Canada is prepared to accept. Mayors and premiers and aid groups declare they can and want to do more. Support for the Tories wanes, as even core Conservatives question Mr. Harper's compassion and good sense.

That's the scenario playing out now. Since the Conservatives are resolved to stay the course – highlighting their military contribution to the fight against the Islamic State, while promising to allow in only a modest and carefully screened cohort of refugees – the issue could contribute to Mr. Harper's defeat on Oct. 19. It could be the event that encapsulates voter weariness with this Prime Minister after 10 long years.

There is a third scenario, which Conservative strategists are hoping will play out. It goes something like this. (The following is based on conversations with senior party officials speaking on background.)

Over the next six weeks, the true complexity of the refugee crisis starts to sink in. The need of Arab refugees for sanctuary is practically infinite; the resources all too finite. Tensions rise within the European Union as some governments do more than their share, and others want no share at all.

Canada's contribution, as measured against many other nations, is far from meagre. On a per capita basis, our offer to settle another 10,000 refugees over several years is roughly in line with the contribution of Britain and France, and streets ahead of anything the Americans are offering. And it's not just the Americans who are laggards. How many refugees is Japan prepared to accept? Or China?

Why are Western nations showing such reluctance to step up in the face of this disaster? Because Islamic extremism is a problem at home as well as abroad. Only the tiniest fraction of Muslim immigrants fail to integrate fully and successfully into Canadian society, but that tiny fraction can pose a serious problem to internal security, which is why the Conservatives are insisting that immigrants be carefully screened before admission.

And as for Canada's military effort against the Islamic State, which both the Liberals and NDP oppose, how many more millions would be on the move if that fanatical sect had been left to expand in Iraq and Syria unchecked?

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The Conservatives are hoping for, and counting on, voters to have second thoughts, as the weeks unfold. They are counting on voters to come around to the belief that a measured approach involving limited military action and a carefully screened intake of refugees is both appropriate and prudent.

The Conservatives may be wrong. Right now, most observers consider the second scenario – in which this crisis contributes to Mr. Harper's defeat – the more likely. We'll see.

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