Commentary by Debbie Douglas in Toronto
The image of our new Prime Minister, in shirtsleeves greeting the first Syrian refugees airlifted from Beirut to Pearson International airport in Toronto was splashed across various media platforms from coast to coast to coast in Canada and across the globe.
Accompanied by Ontario’s Premier and Toronto’s Mayor, the Prime Minister made a speech rich with the language of diversity and inclusion. The consensus is that his remarks captured the spirit of generosity that we’ve seen and heard expressed by so many residents here in Ontario and across the country.
Over this past weekend as we discussed the Syrian refugees' arrival in Canada and the increasing numbers of refugees and internally displaced people in countries at war, one daughter said (of the Syrian airlifts), “Canada is reclaiming its trademark as a place of refuge for the world’s most vulnerable.”
I enthusiastically agreed, remembering that just a year ago, the tone was very different in our discussion of whether Canada would respond to the call of UNHCR for the developed world to respond generously to the Syrian crisis. But in the back of my mind was the niggling question, will Canada respond in similar ways when the refugees are Africans?
[quote align="center" color="#999999"][W]ill Canada respond in similar ways when the refugees are Africans?[/quote]
It is a question that I’ve been asked from time to time over the past few weeks as media became saturated with news of the resettlement plans for Syrians from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – what about the South Sudanese escaping murder and rape who are also camped out outside the offices of the UNHCR in Amman (Jordan)? The Somalis who have spent more than a generation in refugee camps in Kenya? Eritreans?
Or the developing crisis in Burundi* where young men and women are being slaughtered as the country devolves into violent chaos (*as of this writing the federal government has issued travel advisories against visiting Burundi and is urging all Canadians currently in the country to leave while commercial flights are still operating. The USA government has also pulled out its entire non-essential diplomatic staff).
Creating tiers of refugees
These questions are posed not to deflect attention away from the ongoing resettlement efforts on behalf of Syrians as we work to meet our government’s stated target of 25,000 government assisted refugees by the end of 2016, in addition to at least 10,000 privately sponsored, but instead to remind us as a country that there are others who deserve our attention and the same generosity we’ve extended to our new residents from the middle-east country.
It is a caution that we do not fall into the trap of creating tiers of refugees, those that are deserving and those that are not.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]It is a caution that we do not fall into the trap of creating tiers of refugees, those that are deserving and those that are not.[/quote]
Over the past weeks as I’ve worked with various planning groups, I’ve cringed at times at language and ideas put forward about Syrian refugees and those wanting to support them.
There is a classist framing that has emerged both in discussions about Syrians themselves and those who have come forward to sponsor them. It is an elitism that has no place in Canada’s refugee system and which I believe can be detrimental to other efforts as we move to harness and sustain Canadians' renewed sense of responsibility for those needing refuge and asylum.
The most egregious statement I probably heard and which surprised me given the speaker’s role in the Syrian refugee resettlement efforts, occurred at a planning meeting of government, public institutions, immigrant and refugee serving sector representatives and those representing private sponsors.
In a discussion of the various initiatives undertaken by regular Torontonians including clothing drives, this individual with great authority said to the group, “Syrians are middle and upper class. Unlike Africans, they would not want second hand clothes.”
I came back with a clever repartee about donated clothes being sold in the markets of west Africa as ‘dead white men’s clothes’, but was very much taken aback by the casual racism, what my children’s generation call ‘micro-aggressions’.
It is these beliefs of those from Africa being less deserving, not as desirable, not as adaptable that drives public opinion and allows us to remain silent in the face of atrocities against very many African peoples. Another thought also crossed my mind as I reflected on this exchange later in the day. Would anyone else around the table have said anything or even acknowledged this comment as inherently racist, if I had remained silent?
As we do the important work of welcoming more Syrians and ensuring that they have the services and programs to facilitate their successful settlement, integration and inclusion, let us remember that there are other populations also needing refuge – individuals and families from sub-Saharan Africa who continue to die in the crossing of the Mediterranean as they attempt to reach safety and freedom. They too deserve our compassion and generosity.
Much work to be done in 2016
We end the year in a very different place from where we started.
There is a sense of optimism in the air as we prepare to work with this new government that has given every indication that it will reverse the draconian immigration and refugee policies enacted by the previous federal government.
There is a sense that civil society and the important role that we play in shaping public policy is once again respected and appreciated. This is a good thing as there is much work to be done.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Maybe it is time for a complete review and revision of our Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.[/quote]
On the refugee front, the government has made some good policy decisions in waiving the transportation loan and extending type one Interim Federal Health coverage to all Syrian refugees who arrive post Nov. 4, regardless of sponsorship. A goodwill act for the New Year will be the extension of this access to all refugees.
Given the extensive mandate letter of the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, maybe it is time for a complete review and revision of our Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). It is certainly a conversation we should be having as a sector.
The Syrian resettlement initiative raised the issue of affordable housing and has focused attention on the critical need for a national housing strategy.
As well, we need to look at introducing policy that will incentivize employers to hire new immigrants and refugees. The province must reopen the discussion on employment equity-like policy which will also include an immigrant/refugee lens.
Refugees to Ontario are immediately eligible for OHIP services. Let’s extend that to all new immigrants as well and forever retire the three month wait period. We must continue to review and make substantive changes to our child protection services and the relationship they have with racialized (including immigrant and refugee) communities.
We have much work to be done, but what a difference a year makes, as we prepare to work with the federal and provincial governments in the spirit of partnership and collegiality. Happy New Year indeed!
Debbie Douglas is Executive Director of OCASI - Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, the umbrella organization for immigrant and refugee-serving agencies in Ontario. OCASI has 231 member agencies across the province.
This article was first published in the OCASI newsletter In The Field. It was republished with permission.
John Dickie’s Eyes of Nuba screens on Sunday, 26 January 2014 at 20h00 GMT on Witness, Al Jazeera’s flagship documentary strand.
The 25-minute documentary tells the story of Ahmed Khatir from Nuba Reports, a small-band of self-taught journalists based in the Nuba Mountains on the border between Sudan and the newly formed South Sudan.
When the war broke out there in June 2011, Ahmed watched, powerless, as Sudanese soldiers burned his family’s home.