The Syrian Refugee Crisis

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The Syrian Refugee Crisis

Posted on February 4 by Valerie Knowles in Non-fiction
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In the late summer of 2015, a single image served to crystallize emotions and outrage around the world. The image was that of a Syrian toddler’s corpse that had been discovered washed up on a Turkish beach. When this heart-breaking photo appeared on the front pages of the world’s newspapers the hordes of asylum-seekers then pressing for entry into the European Union suddenly had a human face. Prior to 2015, the plight of these people, many of whom were Syrians fleeing  a brutal civil war in Syria, had failed to attract much international attention, but all this changed with the world-wide publication photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s corpse.

The so-called Syrian refugee crisis and Canada’s response to it immediately reminded me of earlier refugee crises that have engaged this country’s attention. Notable among these was the Hungarian refugee crisis of November 1956, which erupted after over 200,000 Hungarians fled their homeland following the crushing of the Hungarian uprising by Russian tanks. 

Moved by graphic depictions of the uprising and its defeat on television and by radio broadcast accounts of the United Nations General Assembly proceedings in New York, Canadians found themselves overcome with compassion for the liberty-seeking Hungarians. When the coffers and facilities of Austria, where most of the refugees fled, became taxed, an SOS went out for help. Among those  Western nations that responded was Canada, whose Liberal government at first adopted a cautious approach to accepting Hungarian refugees. In the view of many Canadians, however, this was not good enough. Pressure steadily mounted outside the government and Parliament for a more energetic response with the result that Ottawa decided to simplify all immigration procedures. This was followed by the government’s announcement on November 28 that it intended to proceed with a generous admission program, a program that would eventually result in an influx of close to 40,000 refugees.

When the Conservative government, or the Harper government, as it liked to call itself, was confronted by the Syrian refugee crisis it also continued to adopt a business as usual approach to refugee admission. In this case, it insisted that all parties applying for refugee status be screened individually by the United Nations Refugee Agency, an agency already overtaxed with work. 

By now, however, Canadians were eager to welcome sizeable numbers of refugees and so Ottawa’s glacial approach to refugee admission was not acceptable.  Critics pointed out that in the past Canada had admitted large numbers of refugees, the vast majority of whom had gone on to make valuable contributions to this country. They cited the example of the Hungarians in 1956-57 and the “boat people” in 1979-80, noting that commitment and innovation by immigration staff in Canada and abroad and the overwhelming response of Canadian individuals and organizations contributed to the success of these movements. But the most important factor was undoubtedly strong political leadership. 

When it came to the Syrian refugee crisis this leadership was provided by the Liberals who made the admission of 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 a plank in their federal election campaign. After toppling the Conservative government on October 19, 2015, they moved quickly to meet this challenge, but with an adjusted time line. It now remains to be seen if 25,000 Syrian refugees will be admitted by the end of February 2016 and that once admitted it they can be successfully integrated into Canadian society.




Valerie Knowles

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014

Valerie Knowles

Valerie Knowles is a journalist and writer who has published eleven non-fiction works. From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne won the University of British Columbia Medal for Canadian Biography for 2004 and the City of Ottawa Non-Fiction Book Award for 2005. She lives in Ottawa.