Tories’ response to Syrian war lesson in contradictions

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So much has been made of the effect of a single image -- one dead child on a Turkish beach -- that to comment on it further is to participate in its exploitation. The Syrian refugee crisis cannot be reduced to that image any more than the reality of genocide can be condensed to a singular symbol of a tortured body. Numbers matter. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that since 2011, 429,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe. This figure represents a small segment of the nine million who have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in March 2011. It is often childhood victims who bring a distant and abstract disaster such as this one into emotional proximity.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/10/2015 (2509 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

So much has been made of the effect of a single image — one dead child on a Turkish beach — that to comment on it further is to participate in its exploitation. The Syrian refugee crisis cannot be reduced to that image any more than the reality of genocide can be condensed to a singular symbol of a tortured body. Numbers matter. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that since 2011, 429,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe. This figure represents a small segment of the nine million who have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in March 2011. It is often childhood victims who bring a distant and abstract disaster such as this one into emotional proximity.

The urgency and magnitude of the crisis finally spurred action by the federal government just one week after Prime Minister Stephen Harper pronounced his reluctance to admit the refugees. His preference was to aim at the root cause of the migration — the Islamic State. Who could argue with that? But on March 24, Harper decided to engage IS further by sending fighter bombers into Syria. Extending Canada’s six-month military mission by another year contributed to the very conditions that produced the refugees. There appears to be a contradiction.

Harper capitulated to pressure and announced he would ease up on admissions for Syrian refugees. Security concerns remained uppermost. Citizenship and Immigration’s news release mentions the word “security” no fewer than six times. Commitment to accept 10,000 more than the 10,000 originally planned, and sooner, and without having to prove they are refugees, is a step forward. But it would not have happened without a public shaming of the kind that affects even the most powerful of political leaders. The news release states the government is prepared to admit 34,300 refugees overall from the region. Who could argue with that? But the UNHCR dropped Canada’s rankings for countries accepting asylum-seekers to 15 in 2014, from nine in 2010. In 2014, we accepted a total of 13,450 refugees of all categories. Today, Canada accepts far fewer refugees for its capacity than all other countries to which its economy can be compared, and about half the number we accepted just a few years ago. There appears to be a contradiction.

A primary conduit for Syrian refugees to gain access to Canada is through private sponsorships. In response to the crisis, the process of sponsorship has been expedited. Now groups of five Canadian individuals or community organizations can sponsor Syrian families without needing to wait for the UNHCR or a foreign state to issue a refugee certification. This program supplements other initiatives. The government set up the Syria Emergency Relief Fund to boost private donations to Canadian charities (but only until up to $100 million and only until Dec. 31).

Maintaining our partnership with the coalition at war with IS is another way the government is positioned to fight the crisis at its roots. Who could argue with that?

But all of these programs are entirely removed from domestic social policy that earmarks public funds for public issues. Sponsors of refugees are private individuals, churches or community groups. Charity begins with individual donations.

The war produces devastation over there that produces more refugees over here.

Whatever happened to the federal responsibility for immigration? Whatever happened to the principle of nation-building?

Canada used to be renowned for our humanitarian admissions of refugees. Even from the coldly calculating perspective of demographics, we need to take in as many refugees as we can. There appears to be a contradiction.

Political life is admittedly a complicated matter. But how much contradiction is acceptable before the foundation of public trust is destroyed?

 

Cynthia Levine-Rasky is an associate sociology professor at Queen’s University.

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