October 18, 2015

Responding to the refugee crisis – a Canadian’s perspective

By Fauzia Bajwa, Canada

A picture is said to say a thousand words. The photo of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body, fully clothed, lying face down on a Turkish beach has now been seen the world over. To those of us in North America, somewhat removed from the on-going conflict in Syria and the resultant refugee crisis in Europe, that one photo brought home to us the magnitude of the tragedy being played out on faraway lands and oceans.

To recap: Aylan Kurdi was a three year old toddler whose parents decided to leave their hometown of Kobani, Syria, and seek refuge in the West. Canada is reported to have been their ultimate destination. The journey they undertook was a perilous one and came to a horrific end when their boat capsized, killing Aylan along with his brother and mother. His father was the sole survivor of the family.

In Canada the photo invoked a response of outrage and pathos. Political leaders, busy with a general election, found that the conversation shifted from the economy to the country’s immigration and foreign policies. They are asked to explain what Canada could and should do to end, or at least alleviate, this humanitarian crisis.

Whilst many share the blame for this unfolding tragedy – including ISIS, unjust foreign policies of leading nations and the Gulf countries’ blatant disregard for humanity – there remains a need for urgent international action as addressing the underlying issues will take time to implement and even more time to produce tangible results. As the migrant crisis continues its desperate onward march to destitution and death, action is needed now. So0 what can Canada and other prosperous nations (Arab ones included) do in the short term to save the Aylans of this world? We need look no further than Canada’s recent history to provide an answer.

Forty years ago, the Vietnam War came to an unceremonious end. Mainstream Vietnamese communities, fearing what lay ahead in their own country, took to the seas to seek out safe havens in other parts of the world. They gambled with their lives. Many perished at sea. During 1975 – 1976 the Canadian government accepted 5,000 of them as refugees. By 1979 there were approximately 350,000 Vietnamese people in need of resettlement. That year Joe Clark was elected prime minister in Canada. He was a proponent of private-public partnerships and his government introduced the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program (PSRP).

Under this initiative, private organisations, such as churches, were allowed to sponsor refugees for resettlement in Canada. They became responsible for integrating the newcomers into the host community and were required to provide financial support for up to a year. Further, the government introduced a matching formula: it would accept one refugee for each privately sponsored one. The programme was a huge success; in just 18 months close to 60,000 Vietnamese were accepted into Canada, 12 times the number brought in during 1975-1976 when the government acted without any private help. (Today this program is still intact, although organisations report that their efforts to bring Syrian refugees into the country are hampered by red tape and a dearth of resources dedicated to this task. Nonetheless the private-public sponsorship of refugees is a useful model that could be adapted to the needs of today.) The Vietnamese community in Canada is a dynamic and vibrant one. Many have entered professions such as dentistry and medicine, others are accomplished business people and some have excelled in academia. Included in their numbers is an olympic gold medallist and a recipient of the Governor General’s Award. In short, this community is considered an asset to the Canadian society.

Times of crises bring out the best of humanity as well as its worst. Canada prides itself on being the first country in the world to introduce a private-public refugee sponsorship program. Governments and citizens of other countries, especially the Gulf countries, could take a leaf out of Canada’s book and formulate constructive ways to serve our fellow human beings in their time of need.