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‘What’s Enough?’: Pressure Builds to Bring More Syrian Refugees to Canada

Around 2,500 Syrian refugees are said to have resettled in Canada so far. That number is supposed to grow by 10,000 by 2017, with another 10,000 being admitted from Iraq and Syria by 2020. But groups are calling for urgent action now.
September 8, 2015, 7:00pm
Syrian refugee in Macedonia walks towards the Serbian border. Santi Palacios/AP

Ibrahim fled his home in Aleppo, Syria in 2013 after rebel fighters raided the chemical company where he worked and took his colleagues hostage.

He headed to Beirut, and reunited with his brother, who had already sought refuge there. A few weeks later, he heard about a Canadian man with the Office for Refugees at the Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT) who was holding interviews at a local Syriac Christian church to find Syrians he could bring to Canada.

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Ibrahim, 33, who prefers to use his English nickname for fear that his family still in Syria could be targeted, had a successful interview and got sponsored by a church in Toronto's east end, where he now lives.

On Thursday, he came across the image of Alan Kurdi, the dead toddler whose body washed onto a Turkish beach after the boat carrying his family capsized.

He thought about his own brother, who is facing that same impossible choice: to wait in the midst of poverty and chaos, or take matters into his own hands and embark on a perilous journey to a better life.

"I thought of him, my family, and of Syria when I saw that boy," Ibrahim told VICE News. "My brother has said he wants to get on a boat to Europe, but I keep telling him not to, to wait for me."

It's that image of Alan Kurdi that has created a firestorm around Canada's refugee record in recent days, triggered at first by reports that the Canadian government had denied the boy and his family safe passage to the country. It later emerged it was Alan's uncle who had been rejected, but the power of the image had already been set in motion, and it is now a symbol of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. Public outcry at the Canadian government has ensued with protests erupting across the country this weekend and political leaders calling for swift action.

In an interview aired Monday night, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rebuffed questions about his government's response to the refugee disaster on CBC News with anchor Peter Mansbridge. When asked if Canada was doing enough to alleviate the crisis, Harper shot back: "What's enough? What's enough, Peter?"

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Around 2,500 Syrian refugees are said to have resettled in Canada so far. By 2017, that is supposed to grow by 10,000. Harper has also said that his government would accept an additional 10,000 from Iraq and Syria over the next four years.

"There is no, as I've said earlier, notwithstanding how terrible this is, there is no refugee-based solution alone to that problem," Harper added in the CBC interview recorded the day after Alan Kurdi's photo went viral.

In a separate interview this weekend, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander declined to airlift refugees to Canada, like the government did with the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.

"1979 is not 2015," Alexander said. "We have to go through screening processes that we are obliged, under our immigration laws, to implement. Terrorism was not a phenomenon in Vietnam."

"Resettlement is not a solution to this crisis," he added.

Related: Canada's Prime Minister Refuses To Take Additional Refugees After Backlash Over Drowned Syrian Boy

But, perhaps more than ever, Canadians are taking matters into their own hands to help bring as many Syrian refugees as possible, even if the federal government won't. It's a response that is forcing a national debate about how Canada is intervening in the crisis in the Middle East, and the role that resettlement plays in that.

On Tuesday, the Toronto Catholic archdiocese announced Project Hope, a 100-day "emergency" campaign to raise $3 million to settle 100 refugee families to the Greater Toronto Area as soon as possible, one of the largest efforts of its kind in the country.

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Toronto Mayor John Tory announced last week that he is part of a group sponsoring a Syrian family through Lifeline Syria, a group formed in June that is working to bring 1,000 Syrians to Canada over the next two years. Tory is pushing other cities across Canada to take on the cause, while the mayor of Barrie, a small Ontario city, has started a crowdfunding campaign to bring one family to the city.

Provinces are stepping up, too. On Tuesday, British Columbia announced it would spend $1 million to support Syrian refugees. The money will be used for things like job support and language services.

The government of Nova Scotia has said it will donate $50,000 to the UNHCR for its work on Syrian refugee resettlement, Ontario's minister of health and long-term care said the province would donate $300,000 to the Lifeline Syria, and Manitoba has offered $40,000 to refugee resettlement groups in the province. Quebec, which is the only province that has a separate immigration system, pledged to triple the number of Syrian refugee it would welcome to the province this year.

Also on Tuesday, the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion released an open letter calling on presidents and CEOs of Canadian companies to donate funds to help support Syrian families.

According to the UN, more than four million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes as refugees, eight million are internally displaced, and more than 250,000 are believed to have died from the conflict.

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In an effort to shoulder the burden, David Cameron announced the UK would take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years and Francois Hollande said France will take in 24,000 more asylum seekers over two years.

Canada's 2,500 Syrian refugees pale in comparison to the number of Syrian refugees already accepted by other countries such as Germany and Sweden, which have welcomed around 80,000 and 40,000 refugees from Syria, respectively, since the outbreak of the conflict. Although, for many of these refugees, they make an asylum claim in Europe after making their own way there, something that isn't happening in Canada, which is a much further away.

Countries that have accepted close to zero Syrian refugees include many wealthy nations such as the Gulf States. So far, the US has accepted 1,553 Syrians for resettlement, and has hinted it might bring in 6,500 more by 2018.

A great number of Syrian refugees to Canada are able to come here because of private sponsorship, a program unique to Canada that has brought in more than 220,000 refugees since 1979 in response to the "boat people" crisis — a mass wave of refugees fleeing to Canada from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Those involved in private sponsorship, as opposed to government-assisted sponsorship, are saying that last week's surge in public awareness and concern about refugees, coupled with an improved application process, means this could be a watershed moment for Canada's private sponsorship regime.

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It's a complex process that requires significant time and money — and the federal government's final stamp of approval. It costs around $27,000 to sponsor a family of four for one year. Private sponsors are responsible for helping families get settled in every way, including finding them housing, helping them enroll in language classes, finding them jobs, and taking them to appointments.

Related: Migrants Seeking 'German Life' Are Not Refugees, Says Hungary PM

Martin Mark, the director of ORAT, told VICE News he's optimistic that more Canadians than ever before will help settle people in need. ORAT is a network of more than 160 Catholic parishes in the Toronto area that comprises the most active refugee pipeline to Canada. It has settled 120 Syrian refugees so far, including a woman who was employed at the Canadian embassy in Damascus until it had to close down in 2012.

"Now, because of all the media coverage, if I said that our phones were permanently ringing, I wouldn't be exaggerating," Mark told VICE News.

"It's more and more clear that politicians and the public are more aware that this is not just a regular crisis, but something extraordinary that requires an extraordinary response. I do believe that we're in the making of people feeling it's a moral obligation to come up with new ideas to help."

Last year, Mark's work was compromised because Canada's immigration minister was several months late in releasing the quotas they require to continue their work.

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In an interview with Maclean's magazine earlier this year, Mark described the delay as "devastating" and he expected similar delays for 2015.

But that didn't end up being the case. In fact, he says, the government has gotten its act together and the process has significantly improved this year.

"This year is very different because we got the quotas in time," Mark said. And on top of that, the government is allowing private sponsors to submit an unlimited number of applications to sponsor Syrian and Iraqi refugees. "I'm trying my best to sponsor as much as possible."

Alexandra Kotyk, project manager at Lifeline Syria, told VICE News she's optimistic the group will be able to bring in more than 1,000 Syrians to Toronto over the next two years, but dealing with the government's complicated sponsorship process is challenging.

"I'm thrilled that Canadians are, once again, showing their humanitarian interest in sponsoring refugees," Kotyk said. "But the complicatedness of the process, the requirements, and the long waiting times make it difficult. We're hoping there will be changes to make it easier."

Her group has called on the federal government to exempt Syrian cases from requiring a refugee recognition document from the UNHCR and to ease other regulations around documentation.

She also hopes the government will take on more of its own sponsorship. "The government should make their commitments to help refugees and anything private citizens want to do should be over and above that commitment," she said.

As for Ibrahim, the wait is as excruciating for him as it is for his brother back in Beirut. He says he's adjusting to life in Canada, where he works as grocer, but won't feel completely at home until they are together again.

"My future is nothing without my family and I need them with me here," he said.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne