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The Syrian refugee debate in Canada


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the election campaign that he would fast-track 25,000 Syrian migrants into Canada by year’s end.

Indeed, one cabinet position had already been politicized by being renamed the Department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship.

But this has now been revised. The government will resettle only about 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, and the entire 25,000 won’t arrive in Canada until the end of February.

The federal government’s refugee plan will limit those accepted into Canada to women, children and families only. To deal with some ongoing concerns around security, most unaccompanied men seeking asylum will not be part of the program.

Trudeau’s initial response to the Paris attacks of Nov. 13 was disappointing to many Canadians; he didn’t seem to share their unease. But he has since taken public sentiment and other politicians’ apprehensions into account.

True, Trudeau’s decision regarding refugees was causing less disquiet here than in Europe. But then again, we don’t have thousands of people arriving on our shores every week and we are an immigrant-populated country.

Still, there had already been some pushback. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, in a letter to Trudeau, said he was concerned bringing in refugees could undermine the refugee screening process.

He later backtracked, and announced that his government will establish a refugee settlement centre to co-ordinate the arrival of Syrian refugees into the province.

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume also thought federal authorities should avoid acting too hastily when it comes to accepting refugees. “Let us open our hearts to human distress, but not to the detriment of security,” he remarked.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil, and Toronto Mayor John Tory, also raised concerns about Trudeau’s timeline.

They had a point. The responsibility of any government is, first, to the security and safety of the people it represents.

These refugees will be chosen from a group that has lived in a part of the world where many have been taught to despise Jews and Christians, and to consider violence an acceptable approach to achieving one’s goals.

Trudeau had planned to complete in a few weeks a process that can take up to two years in the United States. Even now, it will be just three months. So some screening may have to be done after the refugees arrive in Canada, given the short time frame.

Therefore a refugee could already be in the country by the time any problems might be discovered.

Deporting refugees can be legally difficult and lengthy. Once on Canadian soil, refugees are granted the full protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Failed applicants can go to the Refugee Appeals Division at the Immigration and Refugee Board or apply to the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) would have to monitor that individual.

The Refugee Convention of 1951 defines a refugee as a person fleeing from a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.” But it is sometimes the case that the person caused harm to others first.

There were Nazi and fascist collaborators after the Second World War, and Hutu murderers after the Rwanda genocide, who managed to slip into Canada as “refugees.”

Most Canadians want to bring in Syrians and don’t question the costs this will involve, but many questioned the speed with which it is being undertaken, despite reassurances. The Dec. 31 deadline seemed artificial and politically-driven.

We have to have hearts, but we must remember to let our heads have a say as well.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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