Ratna Omidvar is executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University. She is also chair of Lifeline Syria.
As if we needed evidence that we are not disconnected from this crisis, there was the body of a three-year-old boy on a beach in Turkey, and his grieving Canadian family, to show us otherwise.
This child was among about four million Syrian refugees outside Syria. The majority are in neighbouring countries, and a quarter of a million are in Europe. Along with others from the Middle East and North Africa, they are arriving by foot, boat, train and truck into European capitals. Not all of them make it so far.
The last time a refugee crisis this large occurred was long before Europe was a fortress – it was after the Second World War, when Europe was a shipwreck. Stranded Europeans scrambled to escape their own land even after the fighting had stopped, when hunger and unemployment threatened millions of lives. In 60 years since, we have not seen this scale of displacement until now.
Where is the proportionate response? Nothing yet comes close.
Canada has pledged to resettle 10,000 Syrians by the end of 2017. This figure is not over and above current levels; it's a redistribution. Syrians instead of others. We could easily take many times that number over and above existing levels – our history proves it, our geography and compassion beg it. But less disappointing than the 10,000 commitment is the failure to meet it. According to the Immigration Department, only 1,002 Syrian refugees resettled in Canada as of late July.
There is a reason the number is so low, and it may not be what people think.
I am a would-be sponsor of a Syrian refugee family, and in addition to putting a sponsoring group together, I am working with Lifeline Syria, a citizen-led initiative to bring Syrians to the Greater Toronto Area. I can assure Canadians that there is no shortage of private sponsors stepping forward. Our public information sessions are packed, e-mails and phone calls are non-stop and money is easily raised.
Nor, clearly, is there a shortage of refugees eager to come to Canada. But sponsors cannot find refugees with paperwork ready and cleared to travel to Canada.
How can it be that the federal target of 10,000 goes unmet, Canadian private sponsors are lining up, but approved refugees cannot be found?
The missing link is just that: a link between refugees and sponsors. In previous large-scale refugee movements to Canada, that link was held by the federal government. That link is now broken and there is no plan to fix it.
Fixing it requires four practical actions.
First: Triple the number of visa officers processing Syrians. Citizenship and Immigration Canada does not disclose the number of visa officers stationed in the key cities of Amman, Beirut, Ankara and Cairo, but clearly staffing is too low. A typical case involves about an hour-long interview with each adult in the would-be refugee family; it's hard to imagine more than four to five families getting seen in a day. In addition, there are security and medical clearances. Average processing times for cases in Beirut is nine to 11 months. In Amman, it's 11 to 19 months.
The promise of resettling 10,000 Syrians outstrips the personnel Canada has injected to fulfill it.
The men and women in our foreign service mounted a heroic effort 40 years ago, when they worked wickedly long days in tropical heat with no Internet or much other technology to bring more than 60,000 Indochinese refugees to Canada in less than 18 months. They did not work in the embassies but set up makeshift offices directly in the camps, working from dawn until well after midnight and sleeping on their workbenches, the quicker to process people within waking hours. They interviewed about 1,000 people a day.
We can allow visa officers more sleep this time around, but their ranks need to triple.
Second: Relax visa requirements out of the European Union. The preferred path for refugees to Canada, in the eyes of the government, is directly from the countries around Syria, not from the EU. People there are considered safe. But at this point, European countries are straining and some are proving no haven. Canada should follow the lead of Germany, which suspended the Dublin Agreement rules that refugees stay in the first safe country they hit. To source refugees from Europe and free up those spots for others, Canada should send special visa teams to Athens, Skopje, Belgrade and Budapest; intercept the perilous journey – because it has become perilous through Europe – and work with European counterparts to manage a shared problem.
Third: An overly complex process may have killed the sponsorship efforts by the Canadian family of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach on Wednesday. Their attempt to bring members of the Kurdi family from Turkey failed. The complexity embedded in refugee sponsorship is arbitrary and shameful. Canada must strip needless requirements from the process including proof of refugee status, which the UN does not provide to Syrians in Turkey. Canada should grant prima facie refugee status to all Syrians outside their country. Full stop.
Fourth: Allow Syrians in Canada to quickly reunite with their families through a temporary resident permit, a solution that the Canadian Council for Refugees has called on the government to implement. This pathway could divert families such as the Kurdis away from the alternative, deadly routes.
A final requirement is political will. Without it, Canada will neither exceed nor meet its initial pledge.
In recent days, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took an unequivocal leadership role in the face of criticism and protest from some of her own electorate. In turn, the German people expressed massive volunteer support for refugees in Munich, Berlin and elsewhere. It's an open question if any among those seeking to become Canada's next prime minister are willing to follow her example, and allow Canada to restore its moral leadership.
Now is the time to speak plainly about fixing this problem. My question to the party leaders is: What will you do?