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Canada must help rebuild the world’s refugee regime

Craig Damian Smith is associate director of the Global Migration Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

On Tuesday, Israel announced it was suspending a deal that would have seen 16,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers resettled to Canada and European countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) brokered the deal to halt deportations of 35,000 people on the condition that Israel would regularize a commensurate number. It collapsed because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners refused to accept non-Jewish refugees.

The situation in Israel and the need for the UNHCR to broker the deal are diagnostic of a faltering international refugee regime. Canada’s intervention is emblematic of our emphasis on migration for global diplomacy. If we play our hand right the latter can help fix the former.

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Asylum seekers ended up in Israel because of European attempts to stop Mediterranean migration. In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi and Moammar Gadhafi signed a “friendship pact”, which meant collaborating to push back migrants. Many were imprisoned, pressed into indentured labour, or forced toward new routes. From 2009 to 2012 roughly 50,000 people crossed the Sinai into Israel.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of migrants throughout the region. Stories from the Sinai are horrific. Bedouin traffickers systematically tortured and raped to extort money from families or diaspora communities. Israel pushed refugees into Egypt. The Egyptian army, when not complicit with trafficking, shot to kill. The route was closed in late 2012 after Israel built a border fence and the Mediterranean route reopened after Libya collapsed in the Arab Spring.

The situation in Israel is dire. In 2009, Israel took over refugee status determination from the UNHCR, abandoning its obligation to hear asylum claims. Instead, it grouped asylum seekers under a 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration” law used against Palestinian militants. A revision to the law offered a choice between deportation and prison.

The deeply fractured Israeli political spectrum mobilized around the issue. Rabbis and activists built coalitions with asylum seekers. They host refugee Seders in South Tel Aviv, drawing parallels with the Jewish exodus from Egypt. In that same neighbourhood, right-wing politicians whipped disenfranchised Israelis into violent mobs to protect the Jewish state.

Most recently, rabbis organized sanctuary to prevent deportations to Rwanda and Uganda – places with which asylum seekers have no connection beyond a racist notion that all Africans are alike. The government offered rewards for turning in refugees.

Several thousand have already left, many to perilous Mediterranean routes. Eritrean Christians were notoriously murdered by Islamic State in Libya. Some deported to Rwanda were sold to traffickers. Those who made it to Europe were granted asylum given that Eritrea is one of the world’s most oppressive countries and those from Sudan are victims of war crimes.

Canada would likewise have granted asylum. But geography is a main reason the refugee system is broken. Eighty percent of refugees are in the global south. The average wait for resettlement is 17 years. Telling people to use legal channels misses the point that they do not exist. This is why refugees use smugglers and risk their lives.

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Not only is it right to offer protection, it means living up to our reputation by re-engaging in multilateralism. Resettling refugees from Israel would follow on recent initiatives to rescue gay Chechen men from Russia and resettle Yazidi people from the Middle East.

Moral and political motivations can co-exist. Helping refugees translates into votes because Canadians support immigration. In turn, this allows for global leadership on refugee protection – a key to our 2019 bid for a Security Council seat. All the better if we can champion the issue there.

But these deals risk a moral hazard whereby xenophobia lets countries off the hook for asylum. It couldn’t be sold to Netanyahu’s partners because he spent a decade portraying refugees as violent infiltrators bent on undermining the Jewish state.

The parallels in Europe are stark. Winners in the Italian elections vowed to deport 600,000 Africans. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s election campaign centres on an amorphous conspiracy between world Jewry and Brussels elite to use Muslim refugees to destroy European Christianity. The narrative is as absurd as it is convincing to Hungarian voters. Austria, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic are on similar paths. Throughout Europe, parties are pulled toward anti-refugee rhetoric.

The failed Israel deal is a microcosm of how xenophobia drives short-term migration controls with long-term consequences. Europe is cutting new deals with authoritarian governments across Africa. These policies imperil refugees, embolden autocrats, and will come home to roost for liberal states.

Canada should resettle refugees. It must also capitalize on its international reputation to help rebuild the refugee regime, act as a corrective to ill-conceived controls, and shame those who shirk their moral and legal responsibilities.

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