Story highlights

A strange, ominous, silence has engulfed Canadian refugee policy in the Middle East.

After three and a half years of bloody civil war in Syria, Canadian reaction to the conflict's refugee crisis remains virtually inaudible, despite increasingly desperate pleas for help and a growing sense of urgency.

This week, Germany and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, held an emergency conference in Berlin to discuss the plight of nearly 10 million Syrian war victims.

Canada joined 40 countries and organizations - including Syrian neighbours, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, who are reluctant hosts to 3.5 million Syrian refugees - to discuss what Guterres termed "the most dramatic humanitarian crisis the world has faced in a very long time".

Syria's war is destroying the region, Guterres warned.

A strange, ominous silence has engulfed Canadian refugee policy in the Middle East.

After three and a half years of bloody civil war in Syria, Canadian reaction to the conflict's refugee crisis remains virtually inaudible, despite increasingly desperate pleas for help and a growing sense of urgency.

This week, Germany and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, held an emergency conference in Berlin to discuss the plight of nearly 10 million Syrian war victims. Canada joined 40 countries and organisations - including Syrian neighbours, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, who are reluctant hosts to 3.5 million Syrian refugees - to discuss what Guterres termed "the most dramatic humanitarian crisis the world has faced in a very long time".

Syria's war is destroying the region, Guterres warned. Iraq is already engulfed in the conflict and other neighbours, overwhelmed by a massive outflow of refugees, are dancing with disaster.

"Economies, public services, the social fabric of communities and the welfare of families are all heavily affected, not to mention the security impact of the Syria conflict in the whole region."

Guterres bluntly told the assembled diplomats the international response to the Syrian crisis has fallen far short of what is needed.

Budget shortfall

The UN's appeal for Syrian humanitarian relief is only 47 percent funded for this year and that budget shortfall is forcing the UNHCR and World Food Programme to cut rations and assistance to Syrian refugees dramatically.

Donors vow more help for Syrian refugees

Guterres pleaded with conference delegates to do more to protect refugees and asked them to provide "massive and concrete support" to Syria's neighbours "so as to prevent a humanitarian disaster".

He also urged wealthier countries, like Canada, to do more to offer hope and a future to Syria's refugees.

"There is a need for a much stronger commitment to burden-sharing by other countries, allowing Syrian refugees to find protection beyond the immediate neighbouring region," he said. "This can be done through resettlement, humanitarian admission schemes, simplified family reunification or more flexible visa regulations."

What Guterres received instead was lukewarm platitudes and promises of more money from Germany and Sweden. Canada remained silent.

Humanitarian groups and refugee activists, had hoped Canadian officials would use the Berlin conference to announce a new, ambitious, programme to resettle 10,000 or more Syrian refugees.

Chris Alexander, Canada's immigration minister, has suggested he might unveil a large-scale refugee resettlement programme to help Syrians. But, for nine months, he has produced nothing but promises and vague reassurances. He won't even reveal how many Syrian refugees have arrived in the country as part of Canada's original commitment to resettle 1,300 refugees.

A non-binding communique issued by participants at Tuesday's Berlin conference urges countries to increase their assistance to Middle Eastern nations hosting Syrian refugees and calls for "substantially increasing" the resettlement of refugees in western countries, but it does not include any concrete targets.

Canada has generously financed humanitarian operations for Syria's war victims, donating over $631m to emergency relief and development work so far.

Promises

But Canada, which has a long and distinguished history of protecting and resettling refugees around the world, has resettled only about 200 Syrian refugees, while considering asylum claims from several hundred other individuals who made it to Canada on their own or were already in Canada visiting, when Syria's war started.

In July 2013, Canada promised to bring in 200 government-sponsored and 1,100 privately-sponsored Syrian refugees by the end of 2014.

The Canadian government consistently boasts about its 'generous refugee system', saying it welcomes about one in every 10 resettled refugees globally. But in the case of Syria, Ottawa's resettlement target for 2014 was only half that traditional benchmark.

For the past year Canadian officials have studiously avoided making any further commitments, despite an urgent UNHCR request in February to have resettlement countries like Canada take in up to 100,000 highly vulnerable Syrians over the next two years.

Guterres made an apparently unsuccessful personal plea for further Canadian assistance in May during a three-day visit to Ottawa.

The Canadian government consistently boasts about its "generous refugee system", saying it welcomes about one in every 10 resettled refugees globally. But in the case of Syria, Ottawa's resettlement target for 2014 was only half that traditional benchmark. The government also pushed 84 percent of that commitment onto private sponsors without first consulting them and made no administrative provisions to reach the target.

The result, has been confusion, resentment and criticism.

Restricting numbers

Syrian-Canadians complain of being unable to rescue their family or friends from a horrible civil war and Canadian refugee advocates insist their government is restricting the number of Syrians it will help as part of a comprehensive plan to transform Canadian refugee policy.

A year after sweeping reforms imposed new restrictions and costs on refugees and asylum seekers, Canada is sheltering and resettling its lowest number of refugees in two decades.

In 1990, Canada resettled 15,485 government-assisted refugees. Last year, the figure was 5,781.

Reforms enacted to the country's asylum system in December 2012, slashed the number of potential refugees seeking shelter in Canada. In 2008, there were 35,000 asylum claims. Last year the figure was only 10,000.

An attempt to strip refugee claimants of government-funded health coverage and a proposal to allow provinces to impose residency requirements on welfare recipients raises the possibility of refugee claimants being cut off social assistance entirely.

It is a far cry from 35 years ago, when Canadians were praised and honoured worldwide for rushing to open their arms, their homes and their country to resettle 60,000 Indo-Chinese "boat people" from Southeast Asia in just 18 months.

Peter Goodspeed is a Canadian journalist who recently spent a year studying Canada's refugee system in a project made possible by the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy.

Source: Al Jazeera