Tuesday, 8 September 2015

We need to change our refugee program now

The image was as tragic as it was heartbreaking. The photo of a child’s body, lying face down in the sand, washed ashore on a Turkish beach. The next photo showed the child’s body being carried from the surf in the arms of a Turkish police officer.

We aren’t used to seeing these kind of graphic images in North America. Our media tends to filter such things out of our view. Yet that is the stark reality of death and death as a refugee.

It turns out the child has a name, Alan Kurdi. Not only did he have a name, but it turns out Alan’s extended family in Canada had applied to bring the boy, his brother and mother to Canada as refugees. Alan’s mother and brother also died.

According to MP Fin Donnelly, he had brought the family’s case to the attention of Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, earlier this year. The family’s refugee application was later rejected. Neither the family nor Donnelly received any reason for the rejection.

Something is wrong here. Something is terribly wrong, morally and ethically. We have somehow allowed the government to develop refugee policies which are restrictive, disrespectful of families and unprotective of genuine refugees.

According to the Canadian Council on Refugees, a national non-profit umbrella organization committed to the rights and protection of refugees and other vulnerable migrants in Canada and around the world and to the settlement of refugees and immigrants in Canada, Canada has neglected its historically strong humanitarian component of its immigration program. Specifically, the current wait for immigration for reunification between parents and children is almost three years.

The current government has also shifted the burden of refugee sponsorship (of approved refugees, who may have already waited years in a UN refugee camp) to the private and non-profit sector and especially on religious communities. That’s all well and good, but the additional resources needed for resettlement have continually been reduced or made more complex through additional paperwork.

The government also withdrew health care services from non-sponsored refugees provided little or no support for these refugees. They were not receiving anything more than what anyone would on ODSP or Ontario Works. However the Federal Court of Canada declared the cuts unconstitutional and forced the government to reintroduce refugee health care.

Our current government has a very poor record on the immigration file. We need a broad, inclusive and effective refugee resettlement program now. The government needs to step up and put in place a sponsored and funded non-discriminatory resettlement program for refugees. It need to support and encourage the private sector to add to that program, allowing families, non-profit organizations and religious bodies to sponsor members of their own group or communities in which they have an interest.

Finally, look at your own family history. Do you think your family would have been allowed into Canada under our current rules and programs? I doubt it. Most of us are here because of immigration policies and practices which were permissive rather than restrictive. We need to think and act to do more in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in recent history. For Alan’s sake, if for no one else.

Let’s hope Alan Kurdi’s death is not in vain. Let’s hope it will catalyse the current government to move quickly to assist in refugee resettlement. We have done it before and we can do it again. We’re Canadians and we do this kind of thing.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.