Dan Lett | Not for Attribution
Free Press
How do you see refugees?
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How do you see refugees?

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” — Warsan Shire, poet

This week, I look at how the colour of someone’s skin often determines their fate as a refugee.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett, Columnist

Dan Lett

The Macro

How do you see refugees?

It’s a question I have often asked people who express anxiety about welcoming citizens of other countries who have been driven from their homelands by war, terrorism, threats to personal safety or economic dysfunction.

What makes a refugee legitimate in your view? Who would you be willing to accept into the country unconditionally?

I’m sad to say that many of these exchanges end with the same pathetic rationalizations. Let’s face it: far too many of us who live relatively comfortable lives in wealthier nations simply don’t have a whole lot of empathy for people who are on the run, literally, for their lives.



Personally, I’m getting pretty tired of our current federal government over-promising and under-delivering on refugee programs. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is quick to appear with open arms when there is a need to relocate great numbers of people from a dysfunctional country. Lamentably, Canada is just as quick to find ways to bog down those admirable offers with bureaucratic inertia.

But is it only bureaucracy?

At this week’s meeting of the Free Press Adjunct Editorial Board (the internal committee of journalists that debates and discusses topics and points of view for the newspaper’s editorial of the day), an interesting discussion broke out about Canada’s record on welcoming refugees. In particular, the contrast between the response to refugees created by the war in Ukraine and our response to the flood of refugees triggered by the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan last year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a post-election campaign pledge to accept up to 40,000 Afghan refugees — only 8,500 have been processed. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

According to the most recent numbers, Canada has processed about 8,500 Afghan refugees since Trudeau made a post-election campaign pledge to accept up to 40,000. Now, contrast that with the more than 7,000 Ukrainian refugees who have been processed in the last month or so.

Some members of the editorial board theorized that this contrast had more to do with the fact that there is a large Ukrainian population here and, thus, a huge support network. That might track anecdotally, but the hard numbers make it a much less viable explanation.

There are about 1.3 million Canadians with some form of Ukrainian heritage, making it one of the larger ethnic groups in our increasingly diverse population. However, given that most of these Ukrainian Canadians are second- or third-generation — immigration from Ukraine has not been robust in recent years — that number could be misleading. According to Statistics Canada, only about 70,000 Canadians speak Ukrainian at home.

Canada has, for example, more than 900,000 citizens of Filipino descent and 1.4 Indo-Canadians. If you include Indo-Canadians in the broader category of south Asian, there are more than two million people.

In other words, the size of the support network likely has less to do with the pace at which people are admitted than some are willing to acknowledge.

And while the Ukrainian community is much larger than the Afghan community (at last census, about 85,000), that does not mean there wasn’t a flood of offers of support from Canadians of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

A woman puts her head in her hands as she sits in a refugee shelter set up inside a school gymnasium in Przemysl, Poland. Around 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine in the first two weeks since Russia invaded. (Markus Schreiber / AP Photo files)

Besides, refugee status is not supposed to be determined by the size of an ethnic or racial community in Canada. It is determined by need and the magnitude of the immediate threat faced by the applicant. Does anyone really want to debate whether Ukrainians are facing a more dire threat than Afghans faced when the Taliban took Kabul following the U.S. withdrawal?

How then, can we explain the dramatic difference in processing time? People who work in the immigration and refugee sector know that governments tend to take a much dimmer view of refugees of colour.

This week, the New York Times did a fantastic report on the backstories of two refugees trying to claim asylum in Poland: one, a young medical student from south Sudan; the other, a young woman who was fleeing the war in Ukraine with her family.

The article is heart-wrenching. Journalists Jeffrey Gettleman and Monika Pronczuk describe how the Sudanese man was chased by drones and helicopters, and beaten mercilessly upon his capture by Polish border guards. The young Ukrainian woman and her family were immediately put into an apartment and provided food and clothing to help them in their transition.

The NYT’s article considers all the possibilities. It notes that Belarus last year invited tens of thousands of refugees from Sudan, Iraq and Syria only to force them to cross the border into Poland, creating a huge and destabilizing refugee crisis. This, the reporters noted, could have made Poland very suspicious of any African or Middle Eastern refugee claimants. This winter, human rights groups have reported that 19 refugees of African or Middle Eastern decent have frozen to death after having been forcibly turned back at the Poland-Belarus border.

You’d have to work very hard not to see what’s going on here. An immigration activist in Brussels is quoted in the story saying that the contrast in the way different groups of refugees are being treated in Europe right now is shocking. She said Ukrainians are being treated better because they look “like us.”

And there you have it. Honestly, when society still largely uses the colour of someone’s skin to determine how they are treated, or what opportunities they should be given, why would it be any different in the refugee system?

Treating refugees differently based on the colour of their skin is racist. So is applying tenuous rationales to explain the imbalance in the way we treat refugees from different countries.



Do you have a subject you would like to see covered in Not For Attribution? Do you have specific questions about journalistic practices or the business of news? Do you have specific concerns about politics or political leaders? Email me your questions and I will respond. Promise.

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