Refugee resettlement

This is a moral issue. 

That’s how panellist Tom Denton, longtime refugee advocate and co-executive director of Hospitality House, responded to the audience question, “Why are you here tonight?”

The panel of experts speaking on “Refugee Resettlement in Canada: Moving Forward from Lessons of the Past” was convened by Menno Simons College.

It started with MSC professor Stephanie Stobbe sharing her own story of risk and danger, leaving Laos to come to Canada, and facing a very unhappy first 6 months (living in a three-room house without running water or electricity, next to a graveyard [terrifying for a Buddhist family with deep belief in spirits of the dead]) in an unnamed rural location before being discovered by concerned friends and moved to a town where they were much better supported.

She also shared some shocking facts that were new to me. For example, the U.S. dropped bombs on Laos every 8 minutes 1964–1973, and there remain some 80 million unexploded cluster munitions in Laos today.

Recently published authors Mike Molloy and Peter Duschinsky chewed up their panel time giving a small taste of their vast experience as coordinator of Indochinese refugee resettlement program and foreign service officer, respectively. Their speeches were especially illuminated by their personal insights into Canada’s remarkable “moment” during the Indochina crisis.

It was remarkable what was accomplished in such a short time with a brand new (and short-lived) government. The indomitable Flora McDonald of Joe Clark’s brief administration “added a zero” when asking to increase the previous government’s commitment to resettle 12,000 by 5,000: as a result, the government agreed to take 62,000 over 18 months.

Her efforts were aided by minister Atkey who’d read None is too Many, the story of Canada’s shameful response to Jews fleeing Germany in the 1930s. 

It was the leadership of local groups that helped the government find the will to respond generously to the crisis. Groups like MCC: within a few months of the government agreeing to facilitate private sponsors, MCC had collected more than 1,000 interested parties and the number kept going up. In turn, those groups were empowered to respond by the government’s show of leadership, says Molloy. 

His figures: 
  • 24 visa officers worked in 
  • 70 camps in 
  • 8 countries to put 
  • 40,000 refugees on 
  • 181 flights in the course of a few months.

Canada showed innovation and leadership in the face of a crisis, says Molloy. It was through this experience that multiculturalism stopped being just a policy of the government and started to become part of Canadians’ lived experience, he says. 

Duschinsky observed that there are three possible approaches to a human displacement issue – repatriation, integration into a nearby region or resettlement – and given the challenges of settling in a foreign country like Canada, the last is not ideal in all situations. But Canada has made third-country resettlement the way we do things. This acceptance of refugees has been apolitical, as Canada has welcomed escapees from countries facing both right-wing terror and left-wing disaster.

Denton didnt mince words. Duschinsky had praised MCC for getting the ball rolling with private sponsorship, but Denton reflected that despite the refugee movements good intentions, “there is a fundamental mean-ness” to the system. It typically takes 5–10 years to resettle a refugee family. Imagine, eager church groups new to the process were frustrated and discouraged at the *months-long* delays in the process for the Syrian families they leapt to help after September 2015. Denton receives letters daily, of people begging to get on his wait list, which he projects will take thousands of years to get through at the current rate. 

“Canada is a gated nation,” he says. The mean-spirited approach “rigidly controls who gets in and how many.” Our geography significantly shields us from seekers on foot or by boat, allowing us to maintain a magnanimous image on the world scene by feting those we do receive while funnelling applications into a torturously narrow and twisted admission pipe. 

Brian Dyck of MCC put numbers behind Dentons feelings. Though the baseline of refugee acceptance was permanently increased after the special dispensation in response to Syria in 2015 (from 11,000/year 1994–2014 to 30,000/year 2015–2020), thats hardly a drop of the 1.2 million refugees UNHCR considers as needing resettlement. 

While there is much to celebrate in the “Syrian moment” (The 44,800 refugees resettled in Canada in 2016 actually exceeds the total for the 1980 calendar year that included the Indochina response), assistant professor of law Shauna Labman cautioned against problems arising from the focus on that situation. Granted, in 2013, a very similar group of experts on a panel in 2013 lamented what it would take to get people to care about Syria the way they cared about Vietnam (a shocking picture of a tragically affected child, it turns out). However, the post-2015 response focussed all refugee attention on Syria – to the exclusion of other emergent situations like Eritrea or long-term producers of refugees like DR Congo and Colombia – and also resulted in some policies (e.g., travel loans were waived for some Syrians during a key period) that will have reverberating effects. 

She also cautioned that resettlement is only part of the picture, and is, legally, a framework that can be strengthened or weakened. Asylum and non-refoulement are legal obligations which must be considered in addition to refugee resettlement. 

John Wiens, a retired MCC worker, who cited his own familys narrative of escape to Canada as motivation for being deeply involved in refugee resettlement, urged action. In answer to
“Why are you here tonight?” he urged the room to consider that however good resettlement work is, we must also slow the flow by working to stop or at least improve the circumstances that create refugees in the first place. 

So much more could be said about this fascinating panel discussion which ran pasts its allotted 2 hours and continued even further in lobby conversations. The need to bring back an “assisted relatives” class based on the conviction that “rebuilding family is a public good” (Duschinsky) is one. 

A personal note of hope, or perhaps pride, was hearing these national experts say “theres something special about Winnipeg.” There’s important work being done here on the issue of refugees. 

I suppose I like to think I’m a tiny part of it, right on the edges, through volunteer work in EAL and with a settlement agency, church involvement with several Syrian families as well as an application for a Congolese refugee, and the tremendous work of MCC.

There is much work to do and many people to do it with.

Updated Feb 22, 2018


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