A haven no more: Canada’s conservative refugee policy

Cumbersome application process and security measures frustrate refugees hoping to resettle in once-welcoming Canada.

Canadians have rallied to demand the government allow more refugees from Syria [Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press]

Nabil Hawara spent 20 years as a political prisoner in Syria before fleeing the war-torn country with his family as refugees in 2013 in the hope of reaching Canada – and the promise of a brighter future.

Two-and-a-half years later, he’s still waiting on bureaucratic red-tape that would reunite him with his wife and children in Montreal.

Canadian immigration rules wouldn’t allow Hawara to bring his family along from Turkey after he applied for refugee status, and he now spends his days eager for updates from the government, which hasn’t provided a reason why they’re not with him. 


“There are no set dates as to when they are supposed to come here,” Hawara told Al Jazeera. “We’re inquiring and my lawyer is sending emails to the embassy asking for updates, and we still haven’t received a response on their status.” 

He said no one at the Canadian embassy in Ankara is willing to give his family any information regarding their file. Desperate, Hawara is looking for any help he can get.

“I’ve given several interviews last year and this year to the Canadian media. I’m trying to express, as best as I can, how much our family needs support. I miss my children. This is not a typical immigration story,” Hawara said.

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Canada’s strict refugee policies have been criticised after coverage of the current election campaign shifted towards the Syrian refugee crisis.

It began with the heart-breaking images of Alan Kurdi – the three-year-old whose body was washed ashore on a Turkish beach after his family attempted to reach Europe by sea. The family had hoped to go to Canada where a close relative lives.

With the four-year Syrian civil war raging on and sending tens-of-thousands fleeing, the story of the Kurdi family touched many Canadians.

Jerry Topolski, a Canadian lawyer from Toronto, told Al Jazeera in recent months he and others filed an application to sponsor and resettle a Syrian refugee family in Canada through a private sponsorship programme.

“I then discovered that it’s not as easy as one would think or one would hope,” he said.

According to figures provided by the Canadian government, private sponsorship can take one year or longer before a refugee family is able to get to Canada.

“I had truly hoped that we’d be able to bring a family over and they would start school with my children in September. That hope was likely naive, but I discovered how naive it was in the last few months,” Topolski said.

A statement by Citizenship and Immigration Canada to Al Jazeera said several factors, such as medical and security clearances, add to the waiting time – even during the crisis unfolding in Syria.

“Interviewing applicants can be complicated by a lack of access, a lack of documentation, and difficulties in establishing family relationships. As well, sponsors are required to demonstrate their ability to meet the required financial obligations of sponsorship,” it said.

Last January, the government agreed to resettle 11,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017. At a campaign stop last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper also said Canada would welcome 10,000 more Syrian and Iraqi refugees over the next few years.

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Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said she doesn’t believe the Canadian government is prioritising the crisis, alleging it has “no willingness” to bring in more Syrian refugees.

In a recent interview, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander described Canada as “the most generous country for refugees in the world”. Rico rejected that statement, arguing while Canada has historically been a leader in helping refugees, today this is not the case.

“This government has no interest in refugees,” Rico said.

Scott Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat, is proposing that Canada accept 200,000 Syrian refugees.

“We take a large number of immigrants who have a lot of money and are willing to buy their way into the Canadian middle class, but we take almost no refugees who are coming because they have no money,” Gilmore told Al Jazeera.

In an open letter published Saturday, former prime minister Jean Chretien described Harper’s response to Syria and Iraq as “cold-hearted”.

Chretien wrote that during its tenure, “the Harper government has tarnished almost 60 years of Canada’s reputation”.

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Between January 2014 and August 2015, Canada resettled 2,374 Syrian refugees. Privately sponsored groups in Canada are responsible for more than half of that number: 1,723.

These numbers do not reflect Canada’s history with refugees and humanitarian crises. Between 1979 and 1980, Canada airlifted 60,000 Vietnamese refugees. It did the same with 5,000 people from Kosovo in the 1990s.

“And there was no debate. There was no controversy. It was Canada opening the heart. It was what Canada was in those days,” Chretien said at a campaign rally on Sunday.

After all the pressure, the government announced it would match up to $100m in donations for Syria.

South Vietnamese refugees bound for Canada in 1975 after communist forces took over the Southeast Asian country [AP]
South Vietnamese refugees bound for Canada in 1975 after communist forces took over the Southeast Asian country [AP]

Media coverage of the election has also highlighted the conservative government’s terrorism fears.

Harper told his audience at a campaign event that speeding up is not in the country’s best security interests.

“We cannot open the floodgates and airlift tens of thousands of refugees out of a terrorist war zone without proper process. That is too great a risk for Canada,” Harper said at a campaign stop. 

Canadian Defence Minister Jason Kenney ruled out airlifting refugees, calling the idea “completely imprudent”.

“The opposition parties who are talking about airlifting people out of camps clearly do not understand the nuance of the situation,” Kenney said.

Alexander echoed Kenney’s response by saying Canada cannot act as it did in back in 1979 when it airlifted refugees from Vietnam. 

“Terrorism was not a phenomenon there,” Alexander said in an interview.

But Topolski rejected the argument that some Syrian refugees would be security threats.

“The notion that somebody is going to build a family, flee their country, hope to immigrate, and then one day commit a terrorist act is one that Canadians should not accept,” Topolski said.

“It’s an argument premised on a lack of facts and one that is steeped in racism.”

Source: Al Jazeera