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Opinion The headwinds against refugees are powerful – but Canada must march on

Lloyd Axworthy serves as chair of the World Refugee Council and is a former Canadian minister of Foreign Affairs. Paul Heinbecker is deputy chair of the World Refugee Council and a former ambassador to the United Nations.

With its latest report, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) has drawn worldwide attention to powerful evidence of an accelerating global disaster: More than 70 million people have had their lives uprooted by conflict, violence and persecution, forced to seek sanctuary and security abroad. That’s more than the total population of France. Half of these refugees and internally displaced persons are women and children who have been forced to rely on donations from a shrinking number of contributors for the barest of necessities, eking out an existence bereft of basic medical and educational services. One UN estimate is that the number of displaced persons could climb to over 100 million in the next few decades.

Last week, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, used the occasion of World Refugee Day to plead with people around the world to show solidarity and join in efforts to relieve their plight. But his words come at a time when the drumbeat of anti-refugee, anti-immigrant political rhetoric has only gotten louder, leading to government actions around the world designed to suppress the right to sanctuary and asylum, a right tracing its origins back to biblical days. Even Canada’s southern neighbour, which has long led the global efforts to resettle the world’s huddled masses, is now turning endangered people away.

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Canada was lauded in the UNHCR report as one of the few countries that continues to keep an open door to the oppressed. Yes, there are still irregular border crossings caused by a malfunctioning cross-border agreement regulating refugee applications, but compared to practices in other states, we as Canadians can still rely on a broad, authentic empathy for the strangers at the gate, notably from our Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen.

However, the urgency of the growing global displacement of people requires that the message of solidarity must now be translated into international action and reform of a system under stress, a pressure that will be further exacerbated by the disruptions caused by a changing climate that destroys traditional sources of food, water and safe habitation.

At the end of last year, the UN developed global compacts on migration and refugees, eliciting support from most member states in a declaration highlighting the need for collective action. Those documents provided a welcome and valuable framework, and merit strong support. But they are a starting point – they do not get us to our destination.

What’s required are innovative but concrete actions aimed at both resolving specific problems and recasting the world’s response to refugees. This is the objective of the World Refugee Council’s recent report, A Call to Action: Transforming the Global Refugee System, the findings, recommendations and calls to action of which are all decidedly political. The Council is aware that we are going to need politics – the process of promoting, advocating and seeking public support, and change introduced by governments with the authority to act – if we are to realize the transformational change needed to address this global crisis.

The Council’s report is also built on the premise that each nation must control its own borders. This is not a report that recommends open borders everywhere: Governments need to maintain the confidence of their populations, and can do that only if people are satisfied that border management is conducted in a controlled, orderly, responsible way.

Building a coalition of international players, working together to steward reforms, is a necessary way forward. One of the strategies to counter the reactionaries who want to go back again to a “right-is-might” world is to draw together the better actors of our global community to enable more flexible arrangements, coalitions and networks than classic multilateralism affords. Hence the World Refugee Council’s call for the mobilization of a “Global Action Network” beginning with a pledge by prospective members to co-operate to bring greater accountability, burden sharing, technology and financial innovation to the common task of assuring refugees the safety, security, opportunity and future that is in all of our interests.

This is where the debate in Canada must now turn: How can we use our good standing and the general support of Canadians to initiate a diplomacy of refugee reform? More than two decades ago, Canada took the lead in mobilizing such a network to ban the use of land mines. Thousands of lives have been saved as a result. It’s time to put our diplomatic skill and political goodwill to work to initiate life-saving measures for the displaced in our world.

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