In an earlier generation, during a previous refugee crisis, Canada responded with an outpouring of generosity and humanitarian enthusiasm.
In the late 1970s, Vietnamese refugees began fleeing their country in droves, escaping the hardships that followed the end of the Vietnam War. In 1979 and 1980 alone, Canada accepted 50,000 “boat people,” many of whom were penniless, spoke no English or French, knew little of their new country and knew no one in Canada. Churches and community groups rallied and welcomed strangers into their communities, even though Canada was struggling through a period of economic troubles much worse than today’s.
The death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi brings home the reality of the crisis engulfing Syria and the Middle East
Those refugees and their families now represent a proud, prosperous Canadian community, as have previous waves of migrants who found a new home and opportunity in a country that was built by migrants. Unfortunately we haven’t seen the same sense of generosity today – an eagerness, rather than a simple willingness to help. The migrant crisis that has swept over Europe in recent weeks has been largely treated in Canada as just another news item, something worthy of attention but of little impact on our lives. Not until a little boy washed up on a Turkish shore, and we learned his family was trying to reach Canada, did it even dent the artificial bubble of an election campaign too busy squabbling over the technical definition of a recession and the foibles of a foolish senator. The death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi brings home the reality of the crisis engulfing Syria and the Middle East. It’s not just a war taking place on the other side of the world. It’s a humanitarian crisis that affects all of us, in every country that has the capacity to help.
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Canada has not stood by and watched, and it would be dishonest to suggest Ottawa has not demonstrated a heartfelt willingness to help. As columnist Terry Glavin notes, Canada has settled roughly 20,000 Iraqi refugees since 2009 and committed in January to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees, on top of 1,300 welcomed in 2014. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently promised that another 10,000 Syrians and Iraqis would be added to the mix. (In contrast, the Obama administration has allowed only about 1,500 Syrian refugees to settle in the United States over the past four years.)
But the Middle East crisis is far larger than any of the western powers are yet able to cope with. Germany alone expects 800,000 migrants this year and is budgeting billions of dollars to deal with them. Border guards from Macedonia to Britain have proven helpless to slow the rush of people desperate to reach European countries. Hungary has built a barbed wire fence along its borders to block the flood, to little effect. On Tuesday hundreds of travellers between Britain and France were trapped for hours in darkened, stifling trains caught in the Channel Tunnel when migrants blocked the tracks, trying to climb aboard. Germany and France have teamed to organize a united effort to deal with the influx, but still face reluctance from European countries struggling with serious economic problems and cultural prejudices. Slovakia said last month it would take its share of Syrian families, but only if they were Christian.
For every migrant who reaches Europe, hundreds of thousands more are huddled in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The cost of dealing with them will be staggering, and the prospect of their ever returning to a peaceful Syria appear remote. They need a display of generosity from the world, as the victims of a crisis they did not create, and want desperately to escape.
It would be nice if Canada could summon up some of that Boat People spirit and open its doors once again. It would be even nicer if the politicians on the campaign trail could refrain from trying to exploit the situation for partisan gain. That would be an honourable thing to do. Canada has a chance to demonstrate it is an honourable country. We’ll be richer for it in the end.