The number of people displaced worldwide is at an all-time high. Can Canada do more?

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Canada resettled more than 30,000 refugees in 2019, more than any of the other 26 countries volunteering to do so, according to a new United Nations report.

But the latest figures show a grim picture overall: nearly 80 million people were displaced by the end of 2019, an increase of 10 million since 2018.

Displaced people include those fleeing to areas within their own countries (45.7 million) or outside (29.6 million), as well as those waiting on the outcomes of their asylum requests (4.2 million).

Rema Jamous Imseis, Canada’s representative for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said the displacement numbers are ones the agency hoped they’d never see. 

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A majority of displaced people are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, she said.

“They’re not going far from home,” she said. “They’re staying close because the goal is to return.

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But the figures show it’s even harder to return home now than it was in the 1990s, with repatriation falling from an average of 1.5 million per year to roughly 385,000 per year over the last 10 years. 

Resettlement a ‘drop in the bucket’

Only a fraction of those displaced around the world were able to find permanent new homes, with just under 108,000 people resettled.

Canada might lead the way, but resettlement numbers overall are a “drop in the bucket,” said Shauna Labman, a lawyer and refugee advocate who teaches at the Global College at the University of Winnipeg.

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While Canada resettled more refugees last year than the U.S. (30,082 compared with 27,500 south of the border), it’s not as if the country saw a large surge — it’s mostly because the U.S. has dialed back its resettlement efforts, Labman pointed out. 

Resettlement has always been a solution for a very small number of displaced people, she said.

The other solutions are local integration in the country where someone has arrived, or returning home. But when none of these options work, “that’s where you get protraction and extended displacement,” Labman said.

What’s causing displacement?

Conflict and persecution are the main drivers of displacement, according to the UNHCR report. There were nearly 71 million people displaced at the end of 2018 — that number went up by 10 million by the end of 2019, particularly due to new displacement in Yemen, Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Sahel in Africa.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen just over the years, the inability or unwillingness of the international community to find durable solutions, political solutions to the political problems that are actually creating the flight in the first place,” Jamous Imseis said. 

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Ideally, people can return to their home countries safely. “But the conditions don’t exist in most cases of displacement to allow for that,” she said.

Refugees today are likely facing worse experiences than ever before, according to Nadia Abu-Zahra from the University of Ottawa. 

The real change, she finds, is in “a decreasing trend of wanting to welcome them.”

When returning home isn’t an option for a refugee, it is “important that the rest of the world prioritize resettlement,” she said.

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While Canada and some other countries offer permanent residency to refugees, there are states where people may be offered refuge but not permanent residency or security. 

“The crisis is rather that countries are not responding with open borders, with open arms, with an open welcome,” Abu-Zahra said. “Or that they are responding less so than in the past, and with less capacity, perhaps.

Can Canada do more, and if so, what?

Resettlement is “available truly to only a tiny proportion, and it’s for those who are most at risk,” Jamous Imseis said. Only half a per cent of refugees worldwide were able to resettle in new homes in 2019.

But there are ways — through education scholarships and skilled labour mobility — to increase resettlement numbers and also address labour shortages in countries like Canada, she said.

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“That’s an area where the potential is amazing,” Jamous Imseis said. “It would see skilled refugees matched with jobs in receiving countries where they have skilled labour shortages. So it’s a win-win.”

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Canada’s private sponsorship program — which began in 1979 and has brought close to 300,000 people to the country since — accounts for 58 per cent of resettled refugees in the past decade.

Private sponsorship essentially allows individuals and organizations to sponsor refugees and support them financially for a year. It has been lauded in recent years.

There’s a move to take lessons from the Canadian model to other countries, through efforts like the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, which launched in Ottawa in 2016.

“There’s actually a drive to export the Canadian model to many countries who are willing to take a look and adopt it and then incorporate a similar program in their own countries,” Jamous Imseis said.

Private sponsorship programs were not meant to be the main mechanism of resettlement — they were meant to provide additional spaces for refugees alongside government-assisted refugees, according to Labman. 

So, one way to increase resettlement numbers is the federal government “could absolutely seek to match or surpass private sponsorship numbers of resettlement,” she said.

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Fikre Tsehai, a senior policy advisor with Canadian World Lutheran Relief, said countries essentially need to want to resettle people.

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“There must be a political will to resettle more and more refugees, and I think that’s a work in progress,” he said.

More than 75 per cent of Canadians in an Ipsos poll released on World Refugee Day believe that people should be able to take refuge from war or persecution in other countries, including Canada. This marked a 10-point increase from last year.

Close to 60 per cent of Canadian respondents also felt that most refugees in Canada successfully integrate here — a nine-point increase from last year.

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But half of Canadians in the poll also indicated they want Canada to accept fewer refugees now, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Safe Third Country Agreement

There’s one more thing Canada can do, Abu-Zahra said. That is the cancellation of the Safe Third Country Agreement — a controversial deal between the U.S. and Canada, signed back in 2002. Advocacy groups such as the Canadian Council for Refugees and Amnesty International have called on Canada to withdraw from the agreement.

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The deal prohibits people from entering Canada from the U.S. — and vice versa — at official border crossings and asking for asylum. It was signed 17 years ago on the grounds that both countries are safe places and so those seeking sanctuary should apply in the first country they arrive in. 

The agreement is “a reason given to reject their claim to seek refuge in Canada.”

Advocates have argued for years that the U.S. does not meet Canadian requirements to qualify it as a safe country for refugees. The Trump administration has tightened asylum rules and regulations in recent years.

It is not a safe country to be, and therefore it is yet another country where people are seeking asylum from,” Abu-Zahra said. “So for that reason, people are arguing that the Safe Third Country Agreement should be cancelled.”

The Canadian government has denied that the agreement threatens refugee rights.

Refugee education

Another thing to consider is access to higher education wherever refugees are — starting a degree in one country, continuing it in another country whenever they’re resettled.

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“People should not have to wait to be able to continue their life goals, they should be able to carry university with them wherever they happen to be,” Abu-Zahra said. A degree from a university is an important credential no one can take away, she said.

York University, for instance, just granted master’s degrees to its first batch of refugee students in Kenya, through the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees project. A certificate program by the University of Ottawa and American University in Beirut offers higher education to refugees in Lebanon.

Education “is something you can keep wherever you are under whichever circumstances,” Abu-Zahra said. “So it is very important for us to be offering that.”

–With files by Global News reporter Maham Abedi

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