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Syrian refugee crisis a precursor to more population upheavals

Canadian panel hears how factors such as climate change could spell more mass migration

Published: Updated:

The current refugee crisis facing Europe is not transitory and the world needs to be ready to face much bigger population upheavals.

That is the stark message a University of Toronto audience heard during a panel discussion Wednesday on the policy options and implications for Canada presented by the Syrian crisis.

Climate change is set to be one driving factor behind this – with some observing that the misery brought by drought was one of the aggravating factors for the current crisis in Syria.

To tackle the looming population moves, we need to come up with more permanent arrangements and systematic approaches, said Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s last ambassador to the U.N. Security Council.

Speaking via Skype from Ottawa, Heinbecker said it would even mean revisiting current refugee conventions.

The warning made Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to add the word “refugees” to the ministry in charge of immigration and citizenship come across as very insightful.

Heinbecker said although the world is a much safer place than any time before, displacement of people is at an all-time high since World War II.

Conflicts, violence and persecution had forced one in every 122 humans on Earth to become either a refugee, an internally displaced person or an asylum seeker at the end of last year, he said.

The annual global trends study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said a record 59.5 million people were living in exile from their homes. If all these people were to be counted as the population of a single country, it would be the 24th largest in the world, with about the same number of people as Italy.

Uneven burden

As Canada plans to resettle 10,000 refugees by the year’s end and another 15,000 by March, “we shouldn’t forget the other refugees and share our generosity with them as well,” said Heinbecker.

To come to grips with the issue as soon as possible, he sees a role for think tanks and academia to better explain refugee dynamics. “We also need to use multilateral diplomacy to sell the idea that more, and better needs to be done in the way reacts the world reacts to refugee crisis.”

Resolve political conflicts requires better monitoring, to ensure early international interventions to protect human rights, and a more systematic way of sharing our collective burden, he added.

“Europe, barring Germany and Sweden, [has] been essentially on the wrong side when it comes to sharing the burden. And Hungary’s self-imposed duty of protecting Europe from Muslims should be seen as an unchristian way to behave,” said Heinbecker.

The UNHCR has said that wealthy countries are relying overwhelmingly on poorer states to take in refugees. In 2014, 86 percent of refugees were in regions or countries deemed economically less developed. Twenty years ago, developing regions hosted about 70 percent of the world’s refugees.

Heinbecker said the enormity of the job facing the UNHCR calls for the urgent need to fully fund the body from the main budget of the United Nations.

At present, apart from a small annual subsidy from the U.N. budget for administrative costs, UNHCR is almost entirely funded by direct, voluntary contributions – the bulk of it from donor nations.

This means that it must compete with other humanitarian agencies, including U.N. sister organizations, for a limited amount of funding. This conundrum is partly the result of misplaced optimism when it was founded. Established in the December of 1950, UNHCR was given a three-year mandate to complete its work and disband.

Heinbecker said by eschewing xenophobia, Canada has profited from refugee flows and immigration better than most countries. “As we are rare in our capacity to integrate foreigners and make the consequent diversity a strength, we can do it again this time with the Syrian refugees.”

Compassion rekindled

The picture of a drowned toddler on a faraway beach seems to have rekindled dormant Canadian compassion, said Leen al-Zaibak, a board member of Lifeline Syria, a community engagement initiative that seeks to mimic the success of a group that helped Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s.

“From dog-walking groups and knitting clubs to choir groups, people across Canada have responded overwhelmingly to welcome the Syrian refugees into their midst,” said Zaibak.

To frame the enormity of the crisis for her Toronto-area audience, she asked them to imagine the whole population of the city and its suburbs (around 4 million) becoming refugees and the rest of the Ontario province (around 8 million) becoming internally displaced people.

Zaibak also reminded local residents that the Syrians coming to Canada were not asylum seekers but would-be Canadians whose papers have already been processed. “With their ‘permanent resident’ status, these people are new Canadians and must be welcomed as such. They are no longer refugees and this is an important distinction that needs to be made.”

‘People’s project’

The terms ‘asylum-seeker’ and ‘refugee’ are often confused. An asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated. On average, about a million people globally seek asylum every year.

While national asylum systems are there to decide who actually qualify for international protection, since the 1980s industrialized countries have sought a variety of ways to limit refugee inflow, said Kristen Marshall, a Senior Refugee Law Trainer at Legal Aid Ontario.

Stating that some of the measures adopted by the previous Harper regime to deter asylum seekers as “distinctly un-Canadian,” Marshall said changes in refugee legislation is needed along with less preoccupation about security.

She urged Canadians not to see refugees as immigration queue-jumpers or potential terrorists. The current initiative to bring in Syrian refugees “is not just a government project, it is our project,” Marshall added.