Over the last week, the Canadian public has awakened to the grim reality of the current refugee crisis springing from Syria after images emerged of a three-year-old boy whose body washed ashore in Turkey. Nevertheless, the public remains divided on how Canada should intervene — if at all.
Alan Kurdi and his family were attempting to flee the country, which has been devastated by fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) and a prolonged civil war seeking to oust President Bashar Al Assad, to seek sanctuary first in Europe and ultimately perhaps in Canada. The family paid smugglers to take them from Bodrum, Turkey to Greece, but drowned when the boat capsized en route.
Canada has been largely insulated from the humanitarian crisis occurring overseas, and it is a crisis indeed. Since IS forces began systematic killings in the region, more than half the population of Syria has been killed, displaced or has fled. This year alone, more than 350,000 migrants have sought refuge in Europe.
Deaths at sea
Kurdi and his family are among the estimated 2,500 people who have died attempting to make the journey to safety.
Given that a large majority of migrants have attempted to enter European countries rather than cross the Pacific to seek shelter in North America, the Canadian public has played more of a spectator role during the crisis. However, this attitude shifted in the last week as news of Kurdi’s Canadian connection surfaced, throwing Canada’s refugee policy into the spotlight in the run-up to the fall’s federal election.
Since the body was discovered on September 2, social media sites have exploded with Canadians expressing their sympathies for Syrian families and their frustration at the country’s current refugee policies.
At a recent Stephen Harper event in Vancouver, Conservative staffers forcibly removed a local activist when they noticed that he was wearing a T-shirt reading “Aylan (sic) should be here.” When Sean Devlin, who has been an outspoken member of the group Shit Harper Did, refused to leave, he was arrested for obstruction of justice.
This outcry has been matched with an outpouring of support from many Canadian citizens. Hilde Schlosar, executive director of Nanaimo’s Immigrant Welcome Centre, said the centre has seen a huge spike in the number of offers of assistance this week.
Even Toronto Mayor John Tory is making a personal commitment to help Syrian families in crisis. Tory has agreed to sponsor a Syrian family through the Toronto-based non-profit group Lifeline Syria. The group hopes to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees as permanent immigrants in the Greater Toronto Area over the next two years.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins went even further on Friday when he called on the federal government to bring in 5,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.
Split along party lines
Despite these and other individual commitments of support, an Angus Reid report released on September 4 shows that Canadians are divided on how the country should respond to the current migrant crisis.
Overall, 70 per cent of Canadians polled say Canada has a role to play in the migrant crisis, but consensus on what the nature of that role should be is less clear. While 76 per cent said individuals and community groups should sponsor more refugees, only 54 per cent said the government itself should be responsible for taking in more refugees.
[O]nly 54 per cent said the government itself should be responsible for taking in more refugees
Canada has resettled 2,347 Syrian refugees in the past three years (despite initial intentions to resettle 11,300) largely as a result of private sponsorship. The Conservative government has plans to bring in an additional 10,000 over the next four years if re-elected.
Seventy-six per cent of respondents said Canada should send professionals, such as doctors or soldiers, overseas to help the migrants, and 23 per cent said Canada should take no action.
Respondents were particularly divided along partisan lines. Conservative voters were the least likely to support options for how Canada could help the migrants, with 37 per cent of Conservatives polled agreeing with the statement that many of the migrants seeking refuge are “bogus,” criminals or economic opportunists looking to jump the immigration queue for a better life.
Regardless of political preferences, the vast majority of Canadians do view the Syrian refugees as genuinely in need of help and agree that Canada should do its part to support them in their search for safety. Now, only the means of doing so are left to be determined.