The United Nations’ 71st Annual General Assembly was very different this year.
Unlike other years, where the focus has been on economic or political issues, there was a predominant focus on migrants and refugees. Canada’s refugee resettlement policy was highlighted as a good example for the international humanitarian effort on refugees. In many ways, Canada’s resettlement system is indeed a model for the world. However, it still needs a lot of improvement before it’s ready to be exported.
Growing international attention to the condition of refugees was made evident, as UN Member States deliberated over ways to mitigate the surge of displaced people. Globally, there are over 65 million refugees and displaced people today. Summit participants repeatedly expressed discomfort with this reality. They were more concerned with the level of inattention to the root causes. Protracted conflicts and human rights violations in many refugee-producing countries are some of the underlying issues some participants sought to address.
Member States signed the New York Declaration, an unprecedented agreement that commits states to improved humanitarian responses to the refugee crisis. This agreement seeks to influence how Member States share responsibility for refugee support efforts. This will be done through “international cooperation and, in particular, cooperation among countries of origin or nationality, transit, and destination” (Declaration, 3).
The Declaration will also instigate negotiations for the adoption of a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018. This Compact, initiated by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, will guide governments to commit to accommodating 10 per cent of globally displaced people annually. Hopefully, it will also strengthen the commitments members have made with the Declaration.
Canada’s Role at the Summit
Many countries also pledged to accommodate more refugees. Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada will provide $64.5 million over three years, to address various immediate global humanitarian crises. Canada also promised a 10 per cent increase in its foreign aid budget, to reinstate and sustain the education of displaced children in conflict zones, and to fund overall international humanitarian efforts. In addition, Canada will partner with the UN to offer best practices from its refugee resettlement system to other countries around the world.
While Canada’s international commitments are commendable, they ignore the troubled state of our domestic refugee resettlement policy. Challenges in paperwork, for instance, decelerate the sponsorship process for many Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs) and claimants. The resettlement system is currently overwhelmed. The government is also under pressure to expedite private sponsorship applications. While this poses a challenge, it also presents great opportunities for increased government and private sector partnership (e.g. through the Blended Visa-Office Referred program). The potential for increased partnerships with church-connected SAHs should be fully explored, as churches are vital to the sponsorship process. As Minister McCallum has begun to consult more with SAHs and local sponsorship groups, a more responsive resettlement process is expected.
All Refugees Are Vulnerable
Another critical shortcoming of Canadian policy is that most of the government’s focus is on the resettlement of Syrian refugees, while other globally displaced and equally vulnerable people wait longer. Syrian refugees have endured one of the worst conflicts in our time and still need all our support and attention. However, the international global refugee crisis is now on an international scale. This implies that many other non-Syrian refugees also need safety and protection.
Canada’s refugee resettlement process ranks refugees on the basis of “vulnerability.” This stratifies displaced people – the ones who need our help right now, and the ones who can wait – even though all refugees are, by their predicaments, extremely vulnerable.
The federal Immigration Loan Program for refugees epitomizes this point. Generally, refugees are provided with loans (for travel and medical expenses), which they must repay within a set time. The federal government waived the repayment condition for Syrians admitted into Canada after November 2015. All other claimants, including Syrians who resettled before this time, will have to repay their loans.
Although well-meaning, the program de-prioritizes other refugees in equally precarious conditions, who have few resources to begin life in a new country. The government’s promised re-evaluation of this policy must begin immediately. Only then will it fulfill its responsibility of ensuring that all financially, physically, and emotionally vulnerable refugees are treated fairly and impartially.
Canada’s interest in sharing best practices with other countries will be worthwhile only when the resettlement process at home is overhauled to reflect more equity and efficiency. This is what we believe Canada should export to the world as a great example. By strengthening domestic processes, Canada will be better positioned to play the model role it so desires.