Background to the Syrian Conflict

The Syrian conflict has been called one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent history. The conflict began in 2011, in the Arab Spring, with peaceful protests against the long-ruling government of Bashar al-Assad. It has ensnared various groups including Daesh (also known as the Islamic State or ISIS), various rebel factions, and proxy involvement by Russia, Iran, and the United States, among others.

At the beginning of 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated the total number of Syrian refugees at about 4.86 million, with at least 6.3million internally displaced people inside Syria. Numbers of fatalities are difficult to verify but are estimated to be between 300,000 and 400,000. Syrian civilians have been actively targeted in urban centers by the Bashar al-Assad regime and by armed militants, including members of the terrorist organization ISIS. As a result of ongoing violence, large numbers of Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon; these three countries are estimated to hold as much as 95 per cent of the total number of refugees. As the conflict continues, this has created a precarious situation for both the refugees as well as host country communities.

While the Syrian conflict has been waging since early 2011, Canada’s response to the refugee crisis was muted. This all changed in the fall of 2015 with the vivid photo of three-year old Alan Kurdi's body lying on a Turkish beach. This photograph sent shockwaves through the Canadian public and around the world. After unsuccessful attempts to join the child’s aunt in Canada, the Kurdi family was trying to reach Europe via Greece. Alan, his five-year-old brother Ghalib, and their mother Rehan died (with a dozen others) when their boat capsized off the Turkish coast in what should have been a 40-minute boat ride to the Greek island of Kos. The toddler's death came to symbolize the desperation faced by countless Syrian families as they flee the ongoing conflict and undertake the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach the shores of Europe. According to UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in 2016, an estimated 5,000 people around the world lost their lives on the sea.

After the media and public outcry following the publication of Alan's image, the remaining members of the Kurdi family were offered resettlement to Canada. However, Alan Kurdi's father, Abdullah Kurdi, chose to remain behind in northern Iraq to work towards opening a hospital and a school to honour his family.Nevertheless, the plight of the family became the catalyst for Canada's refugee response to the Syrian conflict.

Refugee Law and Resettlement

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol are the main international legal instruments governing the protection of refugees. Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin.

These international instruments set the minimum standards for the treatment of refugees. States such as Canada, that are signatories to the Convention, are obliged to protect refugees on their territory and treat them according to internationally recognized rules. Canada's own Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) imports the language of the 1951 Convention into sections 96 and 97.

When large numbers of refugees arrive in neighbouring countries, there is an obligation for states that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention to provide international protection to refugees, including arrangements for their physical relocation. When protection of refugees cannot be guaranteed in the country where they first seek asylum, resettlement to a third country becomes an option. The UNHCR is mandated by its statute and by the UN General Assembly Resolutions to oversee resettlement as one of the three stated durable solutions to refugee crises around the world. Resettlement is a small, but vital, piece of the international refugee response. According to the UNHCR, in 2015 less than one percent of the 16.1 million refugees under their mandate, globally, were resettled.

Canada has a robust, complex, and long-standing resettlement system that includes a number of categories through which a refugee can be brought to Canada and granted permanent resident status on arrival (see Citizenship; Immigration Policy). The three main ways that a Syrian refugee can be resettled to Canada are: 1) Government Sponsorship, 2) Private Sponsorship, and 3) Blended Visa Office-Referred cases.

    1) Government-Assisted Refugees(“GARs”): GARs are persons who have been assessed by the UNHCR to meet the definition of a refugee as set out in the Refugee Convention, and whose initial resettlement in Canada is entirely supported by the Government of Canada for up to one year. This support includes accommodation, food, clothing and assistance with employment.

    2) Privately Sponsored Refugees: The Canadian private sponsorship regime is unique in the world. Private sponsorships can occur through two streams: sponsorship by one of the Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs) in Canada, or through the Group of Five Program.

a) Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs) are incorporated organizations that have a signed agreement with the Canadian government to sponsor a refugee or to assist other sponsoring groups and individuals with their applications. These can include non-governmental organizations, religious institutions (such as churches), and universities. SAHs are entirely responsible for the refugee for one year.

b) The Group of Five Program allows any five (or more) Canadian citizens or permanent residents to engage in refugee sponsorship. They must demonstrate that they have the necessary financial means and ability to fulfill the terms of the sponsorship and to fully support the refugee for a year.

3) Blended Visa Office-Referred (“BVOR”) Program:UNHCR-identified Convention Refugees are matched for resettlement with private sponsors in Canada. The government and the private sponsor split financial responsibility for the refugee.

Canada's resettlement programs have been hailed as some of the most progressive and welcoming in the world and have been used as pilots for similar programs in other countries.

Different Political Responses to Syrian Resettlement

Until almost the fall of 2015, it was unclear exactly how many Syrian refugees were successfully resettled in Canada. In August 2015, the former Conservative government announced that it had resettled 2,302 Syrian refugees to date and committed to resettling around 10,000 in the next three years. After the public outcry over the death of Alan Kurdi in September 2015, the official figure released in September 2015 confirmed that only 2,406 Syrian refugees were in Canada (including both GARs and privately sponsored refugees).

The resettlement of Syrian refugees became a polarizing political issue in Canada's federal election in the fall of 2015. There were also unsubstantiated links made between Syrian refugees, Islam, and terrorism by a number of conservative politicians during the election campaign. In October 2015, the media also reported that the former government had accumulated a backlog of nearly 7,500 applications from Syrian refugees that were referred to Canada by the UN. These applications were not processed by the time the public started pressing for information about what Canada was going to do in response to the Syrian conflict.

Due to the slow response of the former government in admitting Syrian refugees, the private sponsorship sector doubled its efforts to bring more Syrians to Canada. For example, in the fall of 2015, a number of primary schools in Toronto and a secondary school in British Columbia began efforts to bring over and support Syrian families; as well, community groups and religious organizations also made efforts. Universities also pledged to bring in more Syrian refugee students, and projects were started to provide assistance with sponsorship applications in Canada, and to set up educational support for Syrian refugees in host countries such as Lebanon.

Canada's response to the Syria conflict became a flashpoint issue in the federal election in October 2015. The Liberal party made numerous statements during its campaigns about reforming Canada's resettlement system, and it pledged to resettle over 25,000 Syrian refugees if elected. On 24 November 2015, the newly elected government unveiled its resettlement response to the Syrian conflict, and met its goal of resettling all 25,000 Syrian refugees at the end of February 2016. The Liberals also made a number of progressive policy changes to cement its position as a leader on the refugee front, and to show a more welcoming side of Canada. Among other changes, the government has promised to repeal provisions in the Citizenship Act that grant the government the right to strip citizenship from dual nationals, to increase the age of dependent children for immigration purposes back to 22, and to introduce reforms to Canada’s temporary foreign worker program. The government also reinstated full healthcare coverage for all refugees, including Syrians, which was substantially cut under the former Conservative government.

However, as part of its resettlement response, the Liberal government also announced that it would prioritize resettlement of cases determined to be a low security risk, primarily women, children, and families, and would exclude single men. This announcement coincided with the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015. The assumption seemed to be that single Middle Eastern men were greater security risks and should be feared because they fit the stereotype of likely terrorists. After public criticism, the government clarified that it would also be including gay men as part of its prioritization and that single men would not be categorically excluded from resettlement to Canada.

Overall, at the start of 2017, the Liberal Government had resettled a total of almost 39,000 refugees since coming to power in November 2015. This figure includes both Government-Assisted and Privately Sponsored refugees. As of January 2017, the Liberal Government limited the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq to 1,000 new cases, stating that this cap “forms part of a broader strategy to address the large backlog and long wait times in the Privately Sponsored Refugees category.” This cap has caused considerable criticism in the sponsoring communities.

Critiques of Canada’s Syrian Resettlement Program

While the public and media discourse has been largely welcoming to the Syrian resettled refugees, there have also been troubling instances of violence and Islamophobia in response to Canada’s resettlement policies. In November 2015, a Muslim mother in Toronto was randomly attacked while picking up her children from a Toronto primary school and was told to “go back to your country.” A mosque was torched in Peterborough and the Cold Lake mosque in Alberta was defaced twice. A group of Syrian refugees was also pepper sprayed at a welcoming ceremony in Vancouver. Most recently, the Québec City Islamic Cultural Centre attack, which resulted in the death of six men, underlined that Islamophobia needs more urgent attention.

The government response to the resettlement of such a large number of people has also been criticized. While the Liberal government met its promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees, many of them could not be housed, and waited in cramped Toronto hotels for months until more permanent housing options were found. There are also ongoing delays in processing privately sponsored Syrian cases from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, even as refugee sponsorship groups assembled the requisite funds and resources, and, in many cases, have a matching family waiting to be resettled. While resettling such a large number of refugees in the span of a few short months is a laudable goal, the logistics of providing settlement services, education, and employment for this population in the months and years to come may prove difficult; more resources for resettlement are needed.

The Syrian response has also been criticized for setting up a two-tier system, where Syrian refugees are fast-tracked for resettlement, while refugees from other countries continue to wait for years, even if they already have a private sponsor group ready to receive them. Organizations such as the Canadian Council for Refugees are continuing to push the government to ensure that all refugees, regardless of national origin, have access to transparent and timely resettlement. As a humanitarian leader, Canada has the opportunity to support sustainable refugee resettlement policies and to ensure that adequate resources and support are allocated to the settlement of refugees once they arrive.