Since the events in Paris last week, concerns have been growing about the new Liberal government's plans to take in 25,000 refugees by the end of the year. They centre on two issues: capacity and security. Can Canada really absorb so many people? And can it prevent terrorists from infiltrating the country by posing as refugees?
Both concerns are exaggerated. Start with capacity. Twenty-five thousand refugees works out to perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 families. Spread across a sparsely populated country of 35 million, that hardly seems impossible. Canada takes in about a quarter of a million immigrants a year as it is. It has many years of experience of welcoming and absorbing newcomers, a record of successful integration that is the envy of the world.
When Germany is taking in hundreds of thousands, it seems absurd for Canada to quail at the prospect of 25,000. Big cities such as Toronto, which can expect to receive large numbers, have well-established networks to ease the entry of arrivals. Refugee agencies, English teachers, health clinics, schools, community groups, churches, mosques – all are standing ready to help. So is the existing Syrian-Canadian community. Private groups are lining up to sponsor refugees. Families are offering winter coats, linen, furniture and spare rooms.
Ryerson University's Ratna Omidvar, chair of Lifeline Syria, which is organizing support for refugees, says that she can't turn around in Toronto without bumping into someone offering to help. Her group has lined up hundreds of offers of sponsorship. "This is a movement that has gripped the imagination of the city in a way I haven't seen for a long time," she says.
Whether or not the government reaches its ambitious goal of bringing in all 25,000 by year's end – and no one will care much if it takes a little longer – it deserves credit for promising that Canada will do more to help ease the refugee crisis, an effort that is in keeping with the country's recent history of compassion in times of crisis. It would be a shame if the Paris attacks planted doubts about that effort and made Canadians pull back from their usual openness.
The Syrian refugees are victims of terror, not agents of it. They are fleeing killers much like those who stalked the streets of Paris. Their country has become a war zone. Of course Canada should do its utmost to help them.
Canadians shouldn't let worries about security blunt their generosity. The refugees we will be getting are not flooding onto our shores as they are onto Europe's. Canada is a lucky place in many ways. Among them is the fact of its geographic position. It means we are not subject to sudden waves of desperate migrants. Europe faces Africa and the Middle East. The United States faces Latin America. Canada has sea on three sides and a wealthy democracy on the fourth.
Instead of having to deal with throngs of refugees pouring across our borders, Canadian officials will reach out to the places where refugees have temporarily settled, such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. That makes it easier for authorities to examine documentation and conduct medical, criminal and security checks. United Nations refugee officials already perform those sorts of checks in advance, in effect pre-screening refugees and determining which are most suited to resettlement in places like Canada even before Canadian authorities conduct their own due diligence. Many refugees belong to families who have been in camps or other makeshift accommodation for months or years.
So it's disappointing to see so many political voices raising questions about the refugee effort in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Paris should not change the way we respond to the plight of the refugees. The best way to respond to terrorism is to keep thinking clearly, thrusting aside the kinds of fears and doubts it seeks to spread. Neither fear over Canadian security nor doubts about Canadian capacity should stand in the way of a swift and generous response to the refugee crisis.