The Arabic-language Souriali radio program once traced for its listeners the routes that crisscrossed over the Mediterranean, collected in Greece and branched back out across Europe. A mix between documentary reporting and a travel guide, it explained, here’s what you need at this border, here’s the cheapest train, here’s where to charge your phone.

Eight months ago, the lines into Europe from Greece largely disappeared. There are only a handful of ways the story ends for people who sail for Greek shores. One ends in the water. Another for those who passed through in transit involves a retreat back to Turkey. A third ending is suspended and incomplete. Over 61,000 people are in limbo in Greece, unwilling to retrace their steps and unable to go forward. A European deal with Turkey in March 2016 outlined how refugees would be sent back to Turkey and given resettlement aid.

Still, the number of refugees arriving in Greece is creeping up, and may again swell. Daily arrivals rose from a mild 50 in the spring to 96 in October. Meanwhile, Turkey is threatening to nix the whole deal over a political spat with the European Union.

The immobility and ongoing arrivals in Greece raise tough questions for more remote resettlement destinations. Should Canada shift its focus to Greece? Should the next 30,000 refugees come from Europe?

These are real questions facing the Trudeau government as it develops a plan to resettle Yazidis, the minority from Northern Iraq whose pursuit by Islamic State militants is labelled genocide. Following pressure by Conservatives and New Democrats, the Liberals agreed in late October to a timeline of 120 days for Yazidi resettlement to begin.

The operation cannot replicate the Syrian resettlement — primarily from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — because many Yazidis are locked in combat zones in Syria and Iraq that are inaccessible to immigration officials. Many who have fled to neighbouring countries have not registered as refugees, still fearing for their safety. With an estimated 4,000 Yazidis in its borders, Greece presents an alternative, although one with a number of pros and cons.

One compelling reason in favour of taking refugees from Greece is that conditions there are bad there and chances of permanent resettlement are worse. The quality in the camps, most of which are over or nearing capacity, is erratic. Some have school programs and basic sanitation. Others are detention-like facilities that regularly have food and water shortages. An aid worker on hiatus in Toronto described to me the fights that commonly break out among people from different backgrounds, politics and religions, who are locked in together.

Integration into Greek society isn’t a realistic option, and refugees interviewed by journalists and aid workers often want to go elsewhere. Some Greeks have taken remarkable steps to house their guests, like the mayor of Andravida-Kylini who turned a deserted resort into a beachfront camp. But some communities are more limited in goodwill. Greece remains in a tailspin from near insolvency, with limited money for its own.

There’s also the argument and resettlement principle that any one life is worth protecting. It should not then matter if refugees arrive from Greece or less stable Lebanon. Already, Canada is not pure in its selection criteria. We do not exclusively resettle the most vulnerable but opt for a mix. Some refugees arrive needing permanent physical or social care. Others are highly skilled and ready to work.

Another argument in favour: an operation from Greece would break some of the rigidity of the international response. Although this is the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, global resettlement numbers have not dramatically risen, open borders are the exception and not the rule, and refugees are still largely processed as humanitarian cases, outside work or family immigration channels.

Canada has continued to airlift people from countries of first of asylum, typically poorer and neighbouring countries. But operating from wealthier peer countries has parallels farther back in history. After Hungarians spilled outwards in 1956, Canada resettled thousands from Austria and other European ports. A century ago, Greece was involved in another refugee movement. Several hundred Armenian orphans from the genocide in Turkey, after sheltering in Greece, arrived in Canada in the 1920s. Accepting refugees from peer countries is an expression of solidarity, and a practical way to recognize the scale of their contributions.

Although this is the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, resettlement numbers have not dramatically risen, and open borders are the exception and not the rule.

The arguments against are persuasive too. For one, resettlement creates a magnet. If Greece is the gateway to Canada, more people will risk their lives to get there. Word travels fast, and anyone who moves for safety and opportunity will plot the route according to the best of both worlds: Where can I be safe? Where can I have a good life?

Another argument against is the strong sense that Europeans need to get their act together and resettle from within. Any relief from the crisis only reinforces the upside of avoiding resolution.

Third, the most vulnerable are not in Greece. Those who made it there by boat are generally in the middle of the pack. The richer and better connected are farther afield, in Europe or the Middle East. The poorer are displaced at home, in Syria or Iraq.

Finally, why relieve Greece when other countries are housing the highest numbers, and have done for over four years? The count in Greece, at 61,000, is not so high compared with the 1.1 million in tiny Lebanon.

Philosophical and pragmatic arguments could land you on either side of this question.

Much depends on the details of the Yazidi resettlement plan. Designed properly, it is possible to mitigate some of the risks. We could imagine a program that sets a defined number from Greece, say 5,000. Canada could aim to fill half these spots with Yazidis and the other half with refugees from any background. Any effort that pivots to Europe should complement the ongoing resettlement from the Middle East, so the total Yazidi resettlement target from all regions could be much higher than 5,000. Critically, anyone Canada resettles from Greece must already have arrived there. A time-limited operation would lower the chance that more people cross the Mediterranean as a pathway to Canada.

With these conditions in place, moving people from Greece is a good idea.

If the crisis has an ethos, it’s captured by the exiled Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who said “we are helping ourselves to a world that did not help to liberate us at home.” One response to this aspiration is a resettlement plan that follows people where they are forced to scatter, from Turkey or Greece and maybe beyond.

Photo: Nicolas Economou/


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Dana Wagner
Dana Wagner is a parliamentary affairs adviser in the office of independent senator Ratna Omidvar and co-founder and editor of FactsCan. Previously she managed the Hire Immigrants program at Ryerson University’s Global Diversity Exchange. She worked at the Maytree Foundation, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, and the International Organization for Migration.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this