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colin robertson

Demostrators protest against federal cuts to refugee health services on Parliament Hill on June 17, 2013.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

The international refugee system needs a hand.

"Humanitarians can help as a palliative but political solutions are vitally needed," remarked Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in recently releasing the UNCHR annual report.

It is a challenge that fits "no longer just to go along and get along," the Harper government's bumptious mantra for multilateral affairs. Useful lessons can be drawn from our experience and recent reforms to the Canadian migration and refugee system.

Not since the Second World War are so many displaced peoples – 51.2 million – sloshing within national borders and streaming across international frontiers.

These unfortunates are driven by strife, famine, disease, climate changes, or hopes of better economic prospects. Their description – refugees, asylum seekers, illegal aliens – reflects the receptivity of their temporary hosts.

As part of the liberal international order constructed in the wake of the Second World War, the United Nations 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees enshrined a basic humanitarian principle in law: the right to leave one's country for sanctuary elsewhere when facing life-threatening circumstances.

Today, their situation is complicated by the changing nature of conflict. Increasingly, in failing states like Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, they are victims of intrastate turmoil rather than inter-state war.

The traditional recipient countries face growing public resistance to refugee resettlement.

No country has been more generous to the dispossessed than the United States. But with an estimated 11 million undocumented people within its borders, the welcome mat is wearing thin. Facing an influx of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America, President Barack Obama is asking Congress for more billions to deal with the new migratory wave.

Europeans are no strangers to displacement and the original UN Convention was designed to address their post-war movement of peoples. Today, there is a pronounced anti-migrant attitude reflected in the success of nativist parties in recent national and European Union elections.

Canadians, by contrast, still see migrants as vital ingredients in our continuing nation-building. We endorse multiculturalism, but without special privileges. We expect newcomers to blend into our society.

We want a migration system that is fair but disciplined.

In government, Stephen Harper resisted the Reform instinct to curb immigration. Appointing Jason Kenney energized the portfolio. Not without bumps, Mr. Kenny brought innovation, reform and order, resetting citizenship and multiculturalism policy.

Canadian immigration expanded with the stress on employable skills. The Gordian Knot of backlogged applications was cut. Citizenship criteria were recast to emphasize our values, our history and the responsibilities of being Canadian.

Our refugee determination system is more expeditious, with improved tracking and information sharing.

No system is perfect. A few jihadists holding, even burning, Canadian passports fuel headlines, but our risk-management system works. One in five Canadians is foreign-born. The visible diversity of our cities defines what the Aga Khan describes as our "robust pluralism." Mackenzie King's "none is too many" refugee policy has been exorcised, but as historian Irving Abella reminds us: "A nation cannot move forward without recognizing the darker parts of its past." With the courts to protect against the "cruel and unusual," we are finding our way.

Successful integration is hard work. Settlement within Canada means continuing skills development. Acceptance of legitimate credentials earned overseas is still a major hurdle. Accreditation through out guilds is still too protectionist.

We have both research and practical experience in re-settlement.

Canada pioneered the Metropolis research project on urban integration. This network now extends to 70 countries. Community programs like Success and HIPPY set the standard for successful integration by newcomers.

In 1986 the "People of Canada" were awarded the Nansen Medal for our "major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees."

Key to the successful integration of successive migrant waves – Eastern Europeans during the fifties and sixties, Ugandans during the seventies and the Indo-Chinese "boat people" during the eighties – was the active involvement of all levels of government as well as churches, unions and community groups.

Marion Dewar, then mayor of Ottawa, launched Project 4000 to resettle Vietnamese refugees. As she said at the time "Four thousand. We've got almost 400,000 in Ottawa. Surely we can handle that."

Ms. Dewar inspired others. Canada would subsequently welcome over 200,000 from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Let's renew our leadership in refugee resettlement.

Kick-start our 150th anniversary by giving a home to 1.5 million refugees. Make refugees our standing issue on the international circuit.

Canadian self-definition draws from our actions on the international stage. The plight of the refugee is a cause to which Canada brings expertise and experience.

Colin Robertson was a member of the teams that negotiated the Canada-USA FTA and NAFTA. A former diplomat, he is vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior adviser to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.