September 11, 2015 7:42 pm
Updated: September 16, 2015 6:48 pm

What could Canada actually do to alleviate refugee crisis?


WATCH ABOVE: As images of desperate refugees reverberate, Canadian politicians are being pressured to do more to help the humanitarian crisis. What could we actually do differently?

As the global refugee crisis continues to reverberate in Canada’s federal election campaign, Conservative leader Stephen Harper has hinted at plans to increase Canada’s contribution.

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Interest has intensified among Canadians wishing to donate to refugee agencies or even sponsor asylum-seekers themselves in the wake of gutting images of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach.

As the federal parties throw out duelling targets for the number of refugees Canada should bring in (and how quickly), other levels of government are taking matters into their own hands: Nova Scotia has said it wants to take in many more refugees; Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was expected to announce additional funding on Saturday.

And Canadians have opened their hearts and wallets to help people in need.

READ MORE: What is Canada’s record on refugees?

What could Canada do differently? There are a few options:

Family matters

The Canadian Council for Refugees and similarly affiliated groups have called for the government to allow Canadians with relatives in Syria to bring their immediate family members — parents, children, siblings, spouses — over on temporary residency permits.

Doing so would mean more people could come to Canada more quickly without having to qualify as refugees beforehand, taking some of the burden off UNHCR and other people processing applications. (Canada would still perform security screening on people it brings in.)

It’s been tried before, says Council for Refugees CEO Janet Dench, notably in 1999 when Canada made it a priority to bring as many Kosovars to the country as possible, and similarly in the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

“We’re proposing temporary resident permits because that’s a provision that exists in the law. … It seems very appropriate,” she said.

“You can just save the time, save the processing headaches of trying to determine whether somebody’s a refugee or not.”

And once they’re in Canada they can apply for permanent resident status — or not, she said, if they hope to return to Syria when the country is safer.

‘Life has no taste now’: Refugees’ torturous wait for family a world away

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Less red tape, more resources

Even amid an outpouring of generosity among Canadians who want to sponsor refugees privately, it’s still no easy matter: In addition to the cost and responsibility of basically guaranteeing a family for their first year in Canada, it also means years of paperwork.

Canada could make that easier, Dench argues. For one thing, it could bypass the UNHCR’s refugee screening in favour of an expedited interview process of its own.

But it could be something as simple as telling a would-be sponsor what’s wrong with an application and working with them to fix it, rather than simply sending an application back, rejected, and leaving the person to start over.

“It wastes an enormous amount of time when they just send it back and say, ‘No, there’s something wrong.'”

It would also help to simply have more people working in badly backlogged visa offices: Wait times in many of Canada’s international refugee processing offices stretch several years.

“It’s just heartbreaking when you’re talking about sponsoring refugees in need and then the file sits in Winnipeg for a year.”

Numbers game

Refugee advocacy groups have called on Canada to take in another 10,000 government-assisted refugees by the end of 2015 — a huge increase from our previous pace, which would see the country bring in about 10,000 government- assisted and privately sponsored refugees over a four-year period.

“We can do things much faster. Germany has shown how it can be done,” Dench said.

“Any kind of people being brought in, the UNHCR does a referral, they have a basic screening so they’re not going to send someone who’s been involved in violence. … And Canada can also do security screens. We do that for refugee claimants who come here.”

But is it useful to specify the number of people Canada plans to help, whether as a goal or a cap?

“It’s always going to be a little bit arbitrary. Why 10,000 and not 12,015?” said Osgoode Law School refugee law professor Sean Rehaag.

“On the other hand having goals allows you to make sure you have sufficient resources to meet those goals.”

Whatever happens, refugee advocates have been adamant that Canada can’t pick and choose what religion or ethnicity of refugees it deems acceptable: The UNHCR should be able to determine who’s in the most dire need.

While the federal Conservatives have said they want to prioritize “religious minorities,” some people have interpreted this as a reluctance to bring Muslims to Canada.

“That is a major concern. That is absolutely not the way to go,” Dench said. “It causes all kinds of problems … if you go around saying, ‘We only take people of a certain religion.'”

Let people get on a plane

One of the simplest ways to allow more refugees into Canada may seem deceptively obvious: Let people buy plane tickets and fly here.

Right now, not only can you not apply for refugee status while in your home country, you can’t get a tourist or student visa to Canada if you could qualify as a refugee — because the visa office worries you won’t go home when your visa expires.

“We are literally fining airlines that bring Syrians to the country,” Rehaag said.

“Why do we think it’s okay for us to be making it unlawful to get to Canada, and then in turn we look at Hungary, they’re building their fence, and we say, ‘Oh, isn’t that terrible.'”

It creates a catch-22 that makes Canada increasingly inaccessible even to people with the means to travel — and, as Rehaag notes, people paying human smugglers thousands to chance the perilous Mediterranean crossing would surely prefer to spend that money on a plane ticket.

WATCH: Pressure continues for Canada to do more for refugees

Look beyond Syria

Syria’s bloody civil war has dominated most narratives dealing with the refugee crisis. But many of the millions of displaced persons seeking asylum are from other regions that are equally harrowing, if less well known: Afghanistan and Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia, among others.

Some have expressed concern that if Canada focuses its attention on Syrian refugees it will simply mean taking fewer people from elsewhere in the world.

Can we afford it?

One common concern is whether Canada has the money to help many more people, regardless how desperate.

Harper has stressed repeatedly that he wants to ensure Canada’s assistance addressing the refugee crisis is “affordable.”

But numbers crunched by the Ottawa Citizen indicate Canada isn’t spending its refugee budget as it is.

And refugees pay their own way, for the most part: They’re required to pay back the cost of their transport and initial medical exam — with interest.

They’re eligible for health care if they need it and provincial social assistance if they qualify; but they can also work (and pay taxes) once you let them.

“Obviously if you’ve got family in Canada then they would be the first people that would be supporting you,” Dench said.

“We’re also hearing a lot of people that are wanting to help Syrian refugees” — donations could go a long way in the hands of aid groups that are already established, she said.

“There’s a lot of people that want to contribute. It’s not as if the federal government would have to be putting up all the money.”

WATCH: Harper ‘not ready’ to announce expedited refugee sponsorship program

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