The scale and gravity of the humanitarian crisis caused by Syria’s descent into dystopia almost defy comprehension. More than 4.8 million displaced Syrians reside in camps in neighbouring countries – principally Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In 2015, half a million Syrians made their way to Europe, along with at least that many migrants from other countries (such as Pakistan) seeking to improve their economic lot. Struggling to cope with what has been called an invasion, individual European Union (EU) countries and the EU itself have resorted to a range of measures. These include border closures that are counter to the Schengen Agreement rules on the free movement of people between member states without passport controls, and to the March 2016 EU-Turkey Agreement on refugees.

During meetings I attended in March 2016 in The Hague, Berlin and Vienna, I was able to gain new insight into the general reluctance of European countries to use the resettlement option, compared with Canada’s significant humanitarian contribution to the refugee crisis. This can be explained by differing political contexts and experiences with regard to migration – notably Canada’s well established programs for refugee selection and settlement.

The international rules and institutions for refugees were established in the aftermath of the Second World War. In 1951, 147 countries signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and committed to protecting people on their territory who were fleeing conflict and persecution. The convention underpins the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Although the UNHCR has actively promoted the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the camps it administers, the response to date has been disappointing. In July 2015, the EU Council approved the European Resettlement Scheme, under which more than 22,000 refugees would be offered “legal and safe pathways to enter the EU.” As of April 11, 2016, 5,598 refugees had been resettled under the scheme. The largest number (1,864) had gone to the United Kingdom, followed by Austria (1,395). Only 72 had been resettled in France.

Under the EU-Turkey Agreement, for every Syrian migrant returned to Turkey, one Syrian with a legitimate asylum request is to be resettled in Europe. The agreement has been severely criticized by a number of humanitarian organizations (including the UNHCR) and experts – see, for example, the thoughtful analysis by three Dutch law professors. Moreover, as the flow of refugees to Greece declines, which is already happening, so too will the number of Syrians to be resettled under the “one for one” provision.

These numbers do not include Syrians covered by other arrangements. For example, Norway has pledged to resettle 9,000 Syrian immigrants. Nevertheless, it is clear that the resettlement option is hardly on the table in Europe, for several reasons. First, several countries, especially Germany, already have within their territory very large numbers of Syrian and other migrants who made their way there in late 2015, and many will be allowed to remain. In the first quarter of 2016, the German office responsible for migration and refugees processed 150,233 applications; the approval rate was 62 percent.

Second, the populations of most European countries have for quite some time been opposed to even modest levels of immigration. Faced with the recent flows of uninvited migrants, they do not seem willing to make more than a token effort to resettle a share of those living in UNHCR camps.

A third factor, related to the second, is the exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment and islamophobia for electoral gain. In France, the xenophobic Front national, led by Marine Le Pen, came first in that country’s 2014 elections to the European parliament. In Denmark, the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party (DPP) drew 21 percent of the vote in the June 2015 national elections. Just last month, in the first round of the Austrian presidential elections, Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party polled 36 percent of the votes. In some other countries, such as Hungary and Slovakia, virtually the entire political party spectrum holds anti-immigrant positions.

Some European countries do not seem willing to make more than a token effort to resettle a share of those living in UNHCR camps.

Anti-immigrant parties have had significant impacts on public policy, whether as part of a governing coalition or by pulling centrist parties to the right. In Denmark — an otherwise progressive country — a January 2016 law, supported by the DPP and the Social Democrats (the first is part of the governing coalition, the second is not), permits the police to confiscate cash and most valuables above DKK10, 000 (about $2,000) from refugees, supposedly to pay for their accommodation.

Other factors in Europe’s tepid response to the Syrian refugee crisis relate to a sense of insecurity. At the round table I attended in Vienna, a senior law professor suggested the current climate in Europe reflects a concern that individual governments, and the EU in particular, are not in control of migration issues. He added that the European project has led to reduced border controls between countries, but not increased protection for Europe’s external perimeter. The gruesome terrorist attacks in France and Belgium since early 2015 have clearly added to the insecurity.

In Canada, a very different dynamic is at play. As of April 3 this year, 26, 213 Syrian refugees had arrived (the first government-sponsored flight landed on December 10, 2015). As several Europeans pointed out in my March meetings, Canada has the advantage of geography: resettlement has not been overshadowed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other migrants on our shores. This is true, but consider our neighbour to the south. The United States has a similar geographic advantage, but only 1,244 Syrians were resettled there between October 1, 2015, and March 30, 2016.

The Canadian initiative is primarily the response to a commitment the Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau, made prior to the election last October 19, to admit 25,000 government-assisted refugees (GARs) by the end of 2015. Following the Trudeau government’s swearing in the following month, the commitment was revised to resettling 25,000 refugees from all categories by February 29, 2016.

The government met its target by the end of February. A total of 99 government-sponsored flights brought the refugees to Toronto or Montreal, after which many travelled to other centres. By May 8, 2016, 27,005 Syrian refugees had arrived. Of these, 15,268 were government-assisted refugees (GARs) and 9,416 were privately sponsored. GARs receive 12 months of income support (at about the same level as social assistance) from the federal government, as well as health care and support services; privately sponsored refugees receive the equivalent of this amount from the group that sponsored them. A further 2,321 of the arrivals were blended visa-office-referred refugees, who receive federal funding for six months and private funding for a further six months.

As John McCallum (Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship) has pointed out, Canada’s impressive achievement owed a great deal to the dedication of public servants in his department and other federal agencies that were closely involved. Key to all this was the extensive fundraising and other forms of community engagement. The Syrian refugees arrived in some 280 communities (see the federal government’s list of communities receiving Syrian refugees and the refugee distribution). GARs have been resettled in 36 communities, which means that in the vast majority of communities Syrians have been welcomed through private sponsorship.

Public support for the initiative actually increased as it proceeded. According to an Angus Reid survey conducted in mid-November 2015, 42 percent of Canadians supported the promised resettlement plan, with 54 percent opposed. By the start of February 2016, Angus Reid found 52 percent in favour and 44 percent opposed.

Political leadership has been key, as has the generosity and energy of the countless community organizations and individual Canadians. But the undertaking was also made possible because of well-established programs for refugee settlement. Government assistance and private initiatives brought many displaced people to Canada after the Second World War and later – for example after the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary. In 1976, provisions for resettlement through government assistance and private sponsorship were formalized in the Immigration Act. The legislation underpinned the massive private sponsorship of Vietnamese refugees in 1979-80.

Canada’s massive refugee undertaking was made possible because of well-established programs for refugee resettlement.

While in Europe, I was asked what the Canadian government has done in its Syrian refugee initiative to reassure the mainstream population. Although initially puzzled by the question, I responded that broader factors help explain why the government did not need to develop distinct measures to alleviate public concern.

The first, and most obvious, is that Canada has long been a country of immigration. Even though the term might not be used in everyday conversation, population diversity is evident almost everywhere (some 20 percent of Canadian residents were born elsewhere), and most consider it a strength.

Second, most of the large numbers of newcomers arriving in Canada each year do so as future citizens, unlike the situation that prevailed in western Europe for decades, where they arrived as guest workers. Indeed, immigration and the acquisition of citizenship have been closely linked in the narrative of how modern Canada was built.

Newcomers’ pathways to becoming Canadian begin right away through government settlement services, including orientation sessions, employment counselling and language training. Although they are not obliged to, a large proportion avail themselves of these services. For example, 83 percent of respondents in the 2011 “Making Ontario Home” survey of immigrants who arrived between 2000 and 2010 reported using one or more settlement service. Immigrants to Canada wait fewer years to apply for citizenship than in most other countries, and at the time of the 2011 National Household Survey, 86 percent of foreign-born residents had become Canadian citizens.

Third, and very important, Canada has no anti-immigrant federal political parties. Although the Harper Conservative government (2006-15) tightened some of the rules for admission and citizenship, it did not reduce admission levels. In fact, it actually raised the 2015 target to between 260,000 and 285,000 (in 2014 it was 240,000 to 265,000).

Finally, I pointed out to my European interlocutors that other Canadian policies and institutions also contribute to a climate of openness. These include the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, similar instruments at the provincial level, multiculturalism policies and programs, and human rights commissions and other organizations that combat discrimination. Survey research consistently shows that some of these, notably the Charter, are ranked as important to Canadian identity.

None of the preceding, which could be described as the Canadian advantage, should be seen as a bulwark against complacency. In fact, we are at the beginning of a much longer process. An additional 10,000 GARs (beyond those who arrived by 29 February) are expected over 2016. In part because of this commitment, the federal government has raised its overall target for refugees to what will probably be the highest level ever. Some figures for comparison: in 2014, 23,286 (9 percent) of Canada’s 260,404 newcomers were refugees. For 2016, the admission target for refugees (all countries and categories) is 55,800, with 17,800 privately sponsored.

Private sponsors’ interest in resettling Syrian refugees remains strong. Indeed, in late March, in response to pressure from sponsorship agreement holders, the government removed the 10,500 cap for Syrians to be resettled through that channel. The Minister subsequently announced that officials would return to the Middle East to expedite admissions.

Integration of the Syrian arrivals will be a lengthy process (as Laura Eggerston’s article explores elsewhere in this Policy Options special feature). According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, a majority of the refugees speak neither English nor French, and many have low education and literacy levels. The government has allocated additional resources to settlement services, but adaptation will be required, particularly in language teaching, to respond to the refugees’ particular needs. Above all, continuing community engagement will be essential to assist the refugees in the broader integration process.

* * *

In his book The Figure of the Migrant, theorist Thomas Nail concludes: “The figure of the migrant is a political concept that defines the conditions and agencies by which various figures are socially expelled as a result of, or as the cause of, their mobility.” Although this observation may seem harsh, it is certainly relevant to the Syrian refugee crisis. When politics trumps humanitarian considerations, calls for exclusion will often hold sway. Canada is fortunate not to be caught in that vise. We must hope that other countries will soon open their doors more widely to the resettlement of Syrians who want to make new, productive lives elsewhere.

Photo: Jazzmany /

This article is part of the Refugee Integration special feature.


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F. Leslie Seidle
Leslie Seidle, a consultant in public policy and governance, is director of the research program Canada’s Changing Federal Community at the IRPP.

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