OTTAWA – Four million people have registered as refugees with the United Nations since the outbreak of the war in Syria. Many are in refugee camps, awaiting resettlement to countries around the world, while thousands of others are fleeing the camps, unable to wait.
The crisis captured the world’s attention last week when it saw a photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed ashore on a Turkish beach. Canada had been on the family’s list of possible destinations – and the boy’s father is blaming Canadian authorities for the tragedy, which also killed his wife and another son.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper hinted Thursday that changes to how Canada is responding to the crisis could be imminent. Here are some possible options:
1. Accepting more refugees from the United Nations.
Of the four million people fleeing the conflict in Syria, the UN was hoping to resettle 130,000 by the end of 2016. Just over 100,000 places have opened up around the world, though very few refugees have actually been resettled. Canada has formally committed to taking in 11,300 by 2018, two years past the ideal UN target date.
Further, the Conservatives have promised 10,000 more spaces to be filled by 2019; the NDP want to resettle 10,000 people by the end of this year; and the Liberals want to bring 25,000 people by Jan. 1.
2. Speed up the existing process.
The time it takes between the selection of a refugee for resettlement to Canada and their arrival here is currently less than a year, down significantly from the early days of the conflict when it could take as much as four years for someone to arrive. After being selected, a refugee must pass security and medical checks before travel is arranged. Most agree that assigning more staff and providing more funds for those processes could speed up timelines even further.
3. Switch the ratio of private and public resettlements.
Of the government commitments to date, it is private groups who are bringing in the vast majority of the 11,300 people. But the government can move faster than they do. If the government were to increase the number of people it is willing to resettle, more could arrive sooner.
The Conservatives already did this in order to meet their first commitment to settle 1,300 refugees by 2015. Some advocacy groups have called for the government to just increase the number of refugees it will accept directly and fund that commitment fully.
4. Think outside the refugee box.
There are a number of other ways Syrians could make their way to Canada beyond applying for refugee status. Chief among them is by joining family members who are already here. The government could allow those Syrians to immigrate using temporary residency permits, as well as ease up on refusing visa or other permits to Syrians seeking to come for work or school. In the past, people have been denied those permits because officials don’t believe they would return to Syria once those permits expire.
5. Help the refugees still there.
Since January 2012, Canada has committed $403.5 million to humanitarian assistance in response to the Syrian crisis, according to the Foreign Affairs website. Another $300 million has been spent on development and security help. But when it comes to humanitarian aid, there is a major global funding gap that has two causes: countries haven’t pledged enough to meet demand, and not all countries have actually paid what they’ve pledged. The government could unveil a matching donation program similar to what they’ve done for past humanitarian disasters – an idea the NDP pitched on Thursday.