Howard Adelman is a professor emeritus at York University and founder of Operation Lifeline; Naomi Alboim is an adjunct professor in the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University, a former Ontario deputy minister, and a former Ontario region co-ordinator for the federal Indochinese Refugee Program; Mike Molloy is an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, a former ambassador to Jordan and a former director of the Indochinese Refugee Task Force; Mel Cappe is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.
Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary responses. The Syrian refugee crisis is such a case; it demands an exceptional response from the federal government.
The Canadian public expects that. Tens of thousands of Canadians are reaching out, wanting to help. So are premiers, mayors and civic leaders across the country.
As former leaders of the Indochinese refugee movement and senior public servants who have served different administrations at different points in our careers, we know that anything is possible when there is the political will. It is up to the public service to plan ahead, to provide options and analyses to government for key policy decisions. The civil service must be ready to implement those decisions effectively and efficiently with all sectors of society. But the political will and leadership is essential to the process.
The fact that we are in the middle of an election period should not prevent the federal government from acting in response to a crisis. In fact, since all political parties have committed to bringing in at least 10,000 additional Syrian refugees, direction should be given to the public service immediately to remove the bottlenecks and barriers that are preventing the rapid movement of significant numbers of Syrian refugees to Canada. Without these barriers being removed, no political party will be able to meet its commitments if it becomes the government. It is time for the three parties to get together in a non-partisan way and agree that the following should be done:
1. The government should authorize the admission of Syrian refugees under a special program without the need for individual determination by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or another state. This has been done for other major refugee movements in the past. This one step would expedite the selection of refugees and reduce the paperwork burden for sponsor groups.
2. The actual number and time frame will have to be negotiated or determined by the government when elected in October, but the method for speeding up the process must be introduced as soon as possible. We believe that it is not unrealistic to call for 25,000 government-assisted and 25,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugees to be admitted each year for the next two years.
3. The vast majority of Syrian refugees should be resettled to Canada from four target countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt . This will relieve the pressure on these countries of first asylum and will reduce the desperation that is compelling people to risk their lives to get to Europe.
4. First priority should be given to displaced Syrian families with children in the four target countries. These would include families with significant Canadian connections, which would include relatives of Canadian citizens or of permanent residents. The fundamental rule (applied during the Indochinese movement) would be that extended family groups that have fled or taken refuge together would be processed and travel to Canada together. Families would not be broken up.
5. In addition to those with significant Canadian connections, the new program should target (but would not be restricted to) cases referred by the UNHCR.
6. Canadian visa offices in the field should be reinforced significantly and instructed to accelerate the selection rate for refugees referred by the UNHCR or with Canadian connections so that they can be referred to both the large umbrella sponsor groups (sponsorship-agreement holders) and local sponsor groups (groups of five) in large numbers expeditiously.
7. An increased number of government-assisted refugees should be selected from the pool of refugees referred by the UNHCR or other reputable agencies and should be destined to communities with reinforced agencies providing immigrant and refugee services. Humanitarian considerations should be paramount and provision should be made for hardship cases and those most in need.
8. Early outreach to employers will be essential; the temporary foreign worker program for low-skilled workers should be severely curtailed, freeing up jobs for incoming refugees.
Now is the time for all political parties to demonstrate to Canadians that they can work together to address a crisis of enormous proportions and to reclaim our leadership role on the world stage that reflects our values as a caring and compassionate society. We have the experience and expertise. We did it before and we can do it again. All we need now is the political will.