The Syrian civil war originating in 2011 has put millions in perilous situations, now involving most of the international community. With approximately 6.5 million people internally displaced, and millions more fleeing the country as refugees or seeking refugee status, the Syrian war has become a worldwide refugee crisis, in desperate need of international help1. Over the past couple decades, Canada has proved to be a leader in the acceptance of refugees from around the world, especially during a crisis. But as of today, the country has done little to fulfill its global role in protecting those affected in Syria, mainly due to processing delays and poor management of refugee applications, but also due to an insufficient commitment to helping those in need. First of all, it is important to understand how Canada defines refugees, what programs it has to fund the arrival and care for these people, and how it goes about selecting them.
According to the government of Canada, refugees are “individuals with a well-founded fear of persecution or are persons at risk of torture or cruel and unusual treatment or punishment if they were to return to their country of nationality or residence.”2 People seeking protection from within Canada and are afraid of returning to their country of origin must go through the domestic asylum system, whereas anyone seeking assistance from outside Canada must go through the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program (RHSP), and can be sponsored by private groups. 3 Sponsors include church groups as well as ethnic organizations, which “agree to provide emotional and financial support to refugees, including housing, clothing and food, for at least a year”4. These sponsorships as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) play an important role in the selection and referral of those seeking refugee status and aid.5 It is evident that throughout the years, Canada has maintained a leading position in the resettlement of refugees coming from all parts of the world.
Through the RHSP, it is estimated that Canada accepts 25,000 refugees every year6, taking in around one tenth of the yearly total of refugees relocated.7 Moreover, when it comes to human crises, Canada has a history of “fast-tracking” refugee applications originating from the countries affected, in order to free citizens from harm as quickly as possible. These crises include the 2007 war in Iraq, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, together involving thousands of foreigners granted “temporary residence permits” or “permanent residence” in very little time8. But in Syria’s case, Canada has accepted a mere 200 refugees, even though several thousands of dollars have been raised by the 85 private sponsor groups that exist within Canada and are formally recognized by the government9. This effort on the part of the Canadian government pales in comparison to several other countries of resettlement. To avoid increasing the Syrian death toll of more than 100,000 to date, neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have accepted 1 million, 667,636, and 588,979 Syrian refugees respectfully.
Many European countries have also done their part. Sweden alone has offered a new home to over 30,000 Syrian refugees at least for the time being11. Canada’s failure to live up to expectations is in part to do with unreasonably long refugee application processing time, and poor management of these applications in general. In fact, although Citizenship and Immigration Canada originally promised a 30-day deadline for the review of refugee sponsorship applications back in 2012, the expected review time today is of a little under one year12. Furthermore, delays have caused an accumulation of some 21,000 untouched applications13. These delays, as well as the constant change in the application format, are sources of frustration for many private sponsors who have yet to see the fruits of their labor. Another source of frustration for the above-mentioned groups is the Conservative government’s lack of commitment to the aid of Syrian refugees, in the form of health coverage cuts.
In 2012 it was announced that the government would no longer cover supplemental health costs, as this was seen as a waste of taxpayers’ money.14 This entails that sponsors or various not-for-profit organizations will now have the added responsibility of providing financial support to refugees, should they require additional health care. Many private groups are discouraged and consider abandoning the program, as they do not see any progress in the near future15. Since ISIS, known as the Islamic State, took control over the Syria in September 2014, the human abuse and atrocities lived by Syrians have only become worse.
Fear is instilled in the hearts of citizens, and thousands wish to flee the chaos and barbaric atmosphere. With the United Nations predicting the “greatest yet refugee flow since the start of the Syrian civil war” in these next few months16, Canada has the obligation to increase its commitment towards those affected by the Syrian crisis. The Government must speed up the application process and potentially fast-track approvals of applicants originating from Syria, as it did for other countries in the previously mentioned crises. Finally, more has to be done to encourage private sponsors in their attempt to help refugees, starting with reversing the cuts made to refugee health care.