In just two short weeks, following widespread coverage of the drowning deaths of 12 Syrians, the refugee crisis has become a hot-button political issue both abroad and in Canada, where a federal election campaign is in full swing.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is considering reforms to Canada’s refugee policy, but has stated that such measures are only a small part of the solution to the Syrian crisis and that the priority should be tackling the Islamic State (ISIS).
In contrast, opposition leaders have called for Canada to accept larger numbers of refugees more quickly. Former Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier proposed a plan this past week that could see 50,000 refugees brought to Canada by the end of the year.
In the debate about how Canada should respond to the crisis, Canadians should consider how the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle unanimously adopted by the UN in 2005 applies to the refugee crisis.
Under the R2P principle, Canada and other UN member-states accepted a responsibility to protect their own populations from the four mass atrocity crimes. Canada and other states also accepted a responsibility to assist states in fulfilling this responsibility and to take timely and decisive action if a state is unwilling and unable to protect its own people.
The debate on how to implement R2P in Syria often centres on military intervention, economic sanctions, and referral to the International Criminal Court. All of these measures have the potential to help protect vulnerable populations still in Syria. But as legal scholar Tendayi Achiume reminds us, the Syrian border does not function as an on/off switch for R2P.
Because the combatants in the civil war have committed grave R2P crimes, there is a strong case that every Syrian refugee is covered by R2P. Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries remain vulnerable and are in need of protection. In fact, the United Nations Secretary-Generalhighlighted in 2012 that supporting and taking in refugees is a way to implement R2P and prevent mass atrocities. Last week, at the UN General Assembly dialogue on R2P, the United States, Turkey, Tanzania, and the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P all highlighted that accepting refugees and supporting states that host them is a R2P duty.
Resettlement meets Canada’s R2P obligation to respond timely and decisively to mass atrocity crimes because it offers Syrian refugees direct and immediate protection. Granting asylum offers immediate protection to refugees and is free from the risks and uncertainties inherent in military intervention. History also demonstrates that the failure to grant asylum can make refugees vulnerable to mass atrocity crimes. Canadians should remember that following the Canadian government’s refusal to admit the Jewish refugees from the MS St. Louis in 1939, over 200 of them perished in the Holocaust.
Resettlement also helps the neighbouring states of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to uphold their R2P duty to Syrian refugees. These states have opened their borders to refugees and shelter nearly 3.7 million of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees. They also bear direct protection responsibility under R2P for the refugee populations on their territory, but their capacity is stretched to the limit. Relieving the pressure through resettlement better enables them to continue to meet their protection responsibilities and offer refugees safe haven from the horrors of the Syrian civil war.
Canada has a corresponding obligation to provide humanitarian assistance to the neighbouring countries. The Syrian conflict has entered its fifth year, and despite the ever-increasing need donor fatigue is beginning to set in. Only last year, Security Council Resolution 2193 urged UN member-states to increase support to the neighbouring countries. Without additional support, the refugees will experience increasing insecurity and poverty. This could destabilize neighbouring states and make them reluctant to accept additional refugees.
A recent study of the European response to the refugee crisis showed that the key variable in determining the generosity of refugee policy was not national wealth, but domestic politics and political leadership. In light of this, Canadians should carefully consider the international responsibilities to support refugees that flow from Canada’s size and wealth as they evaluate the platforms of the several parties in this fall’s federal election.
The Canadian government is struggling to meet the refugee acceptance targets it set for itself. Canada set an initial target of 13,000 refugees, and raised this in August to 23,000 over the next four years. This figure is comparable to the targets just announced by larger countries like the United States, France and the United Kingdom, and a recent Oxfam study ranked Canada highly for accepting refugees. Yet currently only 2,300 Syrian refugees have been processed and resettled in Canada. Canada’s pledge of 23,000 spaces still pales in comparison to Germany’s pledge to accept 800,000 refugees this year.
Canadian assistance to Syria’s neighbours has also fallen short. In 2014, Canada provided slightly less than the $165.5 million Oxfam assessed as its fair share. This year, Canada’s $100 million pledge falls well short of the Oxfam assessment of $178.4 million.
The Prime Minister is essentially correct that refugee policy alone cannot solve the crisis in Syria and Iraq. R2P has a broad toolbox of policy options associated with it, and refugee policy is only one of them. It is noteworthy that the Kurdi family fled Syria because of the advance of ISIStoward the town of Kobani, an advance that coalition airstrikes eventually halted.
Still, the government’s emphasis on military action does not absolve it of the responsibility to use non-military means to provide long-term protection to refugees. It is inconsistent to say, as Minister of National Defence Jason Kenney did in April, that Canada bears no responsibility to protect the Syrian refugees making the dangerous passage to Europe. Canada cannot acknowledge a responsibility to protect refugees like the Kurdis using military force and then fail to provide them with adequate long-term protection through humanitarian assistance and resettlement programs.
The Prime Minister has said that Canada should both assist refugees and fight ISIS. Yet it is strange that Canada is expected to spend $360 million on fighting ISIS this year but is devoting a much smaller sum to humanitarian aid and lagging behind in meeting its own refugee targets.
Much of the media attention has concentrated on the proposals by the opposition parties to take in more refugees. The Liberals have proposed taking in 25,000 by the end of 2015. In contrast, the New Democratic Party (NDP) would take in 10,000 by the end of 2015 and 36,000 between 2016 and 2019, for a total of 46,000.
Yet even if Canada accepts more refugees than any of the parties are proposing, the vast majority of refugees will continue to live in neighbouring states. The NDP’s refugee target of 46,000 is the most ambitious to date, but it represents only slightly more than one percent of the Syrian refugee population, a population that may continue to swell. There are also some refugees who want to remain in neighbouring countries in the hope of eventually returning to Syria. It would be unconscionable if Canada resettled a small percentage of refugees but allowed the situation of the majority of refugees to worsen by failing to provide adequate humanitarian aid.
Therefore, political debate should also focus on how Canada can do more to provide assistance to the millions refugees who will likely remain in the states bordering Syria. The Liberals have pledged to invest an additional $100 million in aid to refugees, while the NDP have pledged to increase aid but have not yet provided a financial figure. The Conservatives have not yet stated whether they plan to increase aid.
At the very least, Canadians should urge all parties to surpass the minimum Oxfam target of $178.4 million and bring up aid to refugees to a comparable level with the sums Canada is spending on the military campaign.
Such a response, coupled with a generous resettlement program, would go a long way towards meeting Canada’s responsibility to protect refugees.