Over the next year, Canada will have to grapple with people fleeing persecution and war around the world at rates not seen since the Second World War.
And as President Donald Trump has significantly scaled back U.S. commitments to resettling refugees, and taken an aggressive stance toward asylum seekers crossing U.S. borders, Canada’s own responses to newcomers will continue to be tested in the new year.
Canada resettled the highest number of refugees in 2018 and had the second-highest rate of refugees who eventually gained citizenship, according to a United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) report released this summer.
The report showed that Canada accepted 28,100 of the 92,400 refugees who were resettled across 25 countries that year. This includes refugees coming in through a number of available channels. All of these figures are just a tiny fraction of the more than 70 million people who are currently displaced due to conflict and persecution.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said that while Canada has garnered a reputation as a world leader on refugee resettlement, it’s more to do with the fact that the United States has fallen behind in recent years.
The U.S. recently announced plans to resettle up to 18,000 refugees in 2020, down from a maximum of 30,000 for this year — the lowest number since 1980, when the national resettlement program was formed.
“The U.S. has always been the largest country of resettlement, but it’s been on a catastrophic decline,” Dench said. “This has meant that Canada has overtaken the United States as the country doing the most resettlement.”
Over the next year, Dench said she and her organization will continue urging the government to increase the number of refugees it resettles through the government-assisted refugee program to 20,000 from around 9,000 per year.
Dench said that while the Liberal government accepted more than 25,000 Syrian refugees as part of its 2015 election platform, this type of commitment is not common.
The private refugee sponsorship program began in 1979 and allows individual Canadians and groups, including religious organizations, to help resettle refugees to Canada. These private entities, not the government, are responsible for providing financial and moral support for these newcomers for a year.
A key feature of the program is that it allows sponsors to put forward the names of the specific people they wish to help resettle.
While Dench described the initiative as laudable, she said it’s concerning when the government places too much emphasis on the assistance of private sponsors as opposed to bearing more of the responsibility. She said her group will be bringing this issue up during consultations this month in Ottawa.
“Also, privately sponsored refugees are not necessarily the ones that are identified by the UNHCR as being particularly in need of resettlement,” she said. “We have seen much more of a politicization of the question of who is being resettled. We’ve seen that under the Conservatives previously and then to some extent under the Liberals.”
Dench said an example of this would be the 2017 efforts by the government, which was lobbied by members of the Conservative Party and private sponsorship groups, to bring in around 1,200 Yazidis who had been displaced from their homes in northern Iraq and subjected to violence and torture by the Islamic State group. They were the most recent group of refugees to be brought over en masse to Canada after the group of 25,000 Syrians.
However, Dench does not necessarily agree with this approach.
“We shouldn’t be responding to groups because they have a support group in Canada or because it’s more prominent in the media or people in Canada who feel more akin to those people,” Dench said, adding that the U.N. is best equipped to identify those who are in most need of resettlement.
“Obviously, everybody is very concerned to respond. It’s absolutely horrific, the situation,” she said.
But being horrified by a group’s situation isn’t the only question to consider.
“Are we being fair to other people whose need might be just as great?”
Majed El Shafie is the founder of One Free World International, a Toronto-based organization that supports Yazidi refugees in Canada, including people and groups who are privately sponsoring them across the country. El Shafie himself became identified as a refugee by the UN after he was forced to flee persecution in Egypt over his conversion to Christianity from Islam. He first fled to Israel and then resettled in Canada in 2002.
While he agrees that the UN does crucial work, and has experienced it firsthand, he doesn’t agree with the argument that UN refugees should always be resettled over others who may not be identified as a top priority.
“We should extend our view not to focus only on one organization,” El Shafie said.
In the case of the Yazidis, they would not have been identified as convention refugees by the UN as they were internally displaced and not located in a third country, something that is a requirement to become a refugee as recognized by the international rights body.
Even before the Yazidis began arriving, it was clear that their unique trauma would compound the difficulties faced by anyone starting over in a foreign place. In the years since they have arrived, El Shafie said many Yazidi newcomers continue to struggle with accessing proper mental health services to help them feel at ease here.
A government-funded University of Manitoba report on resettled Yazidis in Canada stated that while they were not the only refugees to experience trauma, “they are amongst the most traumatized we have ever seen in Canada and the way we identify and refer refugees to mental health services seems not to be working.”
El Shafie echoed this and said he will be urging for better psychological supports over the next year.
“The government was not able to understand the trauma they’re facing and to be able to deal with this trauma properly,” he said.
As for the rising numbers of asylum seekers crossing into Canada and claiming refugee status, Dench pointed to the lengthy processing times, something that the government has been slowly addressing.
Tens of thousands of people are in the queue to have their refugee claims heard before the Immigration and Refugee Board, with wait times reaching as long as two years. More than 40,000 of them entered through irregular points of entry along the border since 2017.
Although the federal government boosted funding for the IRB, it will take months for it to catch up with the backlog.
“This is causing enormous pain for people who are waiting,” Dench said.
For Petra Molnar, acting director of the international human rights program at the University of Toronto, Canada will need to strengthen its own stance on human rights issues globally in tandem with improving domestic refugee policies.
“There’s a lot of talking and not a lot of action when it comes to our foreign policy, especially given the number of protests that are happening around the world,” Molnar said.
She, like many other human rights advocates, will be paying close attention to the outcome of the ongoing legal challenge against the Safe Third Country Agreement. The pact between Canada and the U.S. states that an asylum seeker may file a refugee claim only in whichever of those countries they enter first. Asylum seekers cannot enter Canada and then attempt to file a refugee claim in the U.S., and vice versa.
This has been playing out amid rising numbers of asylum seekers crossing from the U.S. into Canada in the years since Trump took office.
The agreement, which came into effect in 2004, is built on the notion that both countries are equally safe for asylum seekers, something that refugee rights advocates have said is no longer true given the current climate in the U.S.
A number of groups, including Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees, are taking the government to court, arguing that sending refugee claimants back to the U.S. under the agreement violates Canadian law and should be struck down or renegotiated.
“It’s up to Canada to have a reckoning in terms of how it can square its own human rights obligations and yet still keep an agreement like that in place,” Molnar said.
“But if the government wanted to rescind the agreement right now, they can. They don’t need to wait for a court ruling. So it’s very clear that that agreement is kept in place for political reasons, more than anything.”