Forget maple syrup, hockey & Justin Bieber: Canada’s best-known export should be refugee policy


[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets a family of refugees from Syria as they arrive at Pearson airport in Toronto on Dec. 11, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette]

It’s been a year since three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi died when his family tried to reach Greece by boat; and, since that time, local Canadian refugee advocates have worked tirelessly to assist both Syrian newcomers and their sponsors. But their work has also taken on an international dimension.

Louisa Taylor, director of Refugee 613, a non-partisan group that works with citizens, sponsorship groups, settlement agencies and lawyers in Ottawa has been contacted by officials in Norway, Ireland and the United States who are trying to determine what aspects of Canada’s refugee policy might be replicable in their jurisdictions.

Taylor recalled telling representatives from foreign embassies and the European Union how the recently arrived Syrian refugees — close to 1,600 in Ottawa — are integrating into their new communities with assistance from members of their private sponsorship groups.

She explained that, thousands of Canadians who had never thought about refugees a year ago, are today intimately involved in resettling and helping refugees make lives here. They are looking for apartments to rent, helping with CVs, looking for language classes and navigating the job market, she said.

“This is a beautiful byproduct of this experience. All these people are looking at their own community and society with different eyes.”

Original series on Canada’s refugee policy and the legacy of Alan Kurdi:

When Taylor explains that Refugee 613 has amassed a mailing list of 6,000 people who want to receive updates (as there are more people who want to sponsor than there are refugees available to sponsor), “their eyes go really big,” she said.

“The motivation is a real challenge for some of them to understand because they are fed a narrative of the migrant as the problem, the migrant as the other, the migrant as threat,” she said. “They wonder, ‘Why would you go out of your way to sign a contract with the government to say you will be responsible for someone you’ve never met?’”

Taylor explains: “The fact is, as long as there is conflict or persecution in the world we want to be a place that will give people sanctuary.”

She added, “We’re not unique. We know there are other communities [around the world] that could be doing this in a heartbeat.”


[Refugee 613, United for Refugees programs unveiled at Ottawa City Hall. CBC]

Canada’s ‘boat people’

Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) Program was introduced in 1979 to assist in the resettlement of the so-called boat people. It began when Indochinese were fleeing from Vietnam after the war. Ultimately some 60,000 were resettled in Canada.

Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, told CBC Radio earlier this year that additional wealthy countries should consider replicating Canada’s public and private sponsorship programs.

“We think it is an important model that could be exported with some help and some advising and could be very productive,” he said.


[Canadian officials process Vietnamese refugees who were among the latest wave to arrive at Toronto airport on Aug. 2, 1979. THE CANADIAN PRESS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/Erik Christensen]

To date, several countries around the world have launched or are poised to start refugee programs inspired by what exists in Canada. Germany has private sponsorship programs in many states. The United Kingdom is introducing a refugee sponsorship scheme called Refugees Welcome, based on the Canadian model. Australia’s pilot program, meanwhile, began three years ago and became permanent in 2015. And next year Argentina and New Zealand are also launching pilots similar to Canada’s.

In June, New Zealand Red Cross secretary general Tony Paine told Radio New Zealand that it would be a positive step for the country to adopt a sponsorship program similar to Canada’s.

“It’s a good additional tool to have in the toolkit, if you like, as Kiwis think about how they can help with a crisis that is happening around the other side of the globe,” he said. “It’s just another thing that we can do as Kiwis to help people who are facing terrible and desperate times."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly commended Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis and praised citizens for extending “caring, warm hands” to people who had nowhere else to go.

Since November 2015, the Trudeau government has resettled nearly 30,000 Syrian refugees across the country. It is the most vulnerable who are coming; roughly 50 per cent are children, many are women and there are large groups of families. Approximately 10,800 refugees were privately sponsored while 16,100 are government-sponsored.

Knowledge to the four corners of the Earth

Naomi Alboim, Ontario’s former deputy citizenship minister, is frequently asked by universities, policy-makers and NGOs for her insights and to discuss the challenges and benefits of Canada’s model of public and private sponsorship and integration.

She doesn’t hesitate to point out that Canada is uniquely positioned to welcome refugees while European countries face different challenges.

“Canada is exceptional in many ways. One of the ways is geography, geography, geography,” Alboim said in an interview.

As Canada is surrounded by three oceans and the U.S., “we don’t have to deal on a day-to-day basis with millions of people trying to cross our borders. We have the luxury of being able to, by-and-large select people we deem admissible to come to Canada,” she said.

In February, Alboim was in Italy outlining Canada’s refugee policy to politicians and NGO workers. Currently an adjunct professor and chair of the Policy Forum at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University, Alboim recalled how keen her audience was to see “ordinary Italians” interacting with refugees just as ordinary Canadians have been doing.

The majority of questions dealt with integrating refugees into Italian society: “They said, ‘How do we ensure they (refugees) do not become the ‘other’? How do we ensure refugees are better integrated and have interest in civic participation?’”

She outlined Canada’s labour market integration programs to them and the importance of civil society organization in working with refugees. She described the ways in which refugees have numerous opportunities to integrate through language classes, access to higher education, employment and recreational initiatives that provide hands-on access to varied and experiential learning.

The Canadian embassy has invited her to speak on similar topics in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and, in October, Alboim will visit with politicians and NGOs and present lectures at universities in the Baltic States.

Economic, political and social inclusion

Reza Hasmath, a political science professor at the University of Alberta who teaches ethnicity and social policy and managing government, says Canada’s integration policies are successful because NGOs, business and enterprise, faith groups and community members all have an active role, in addition to government, to include refugees economically, socially and politically.

“We cannot put them [refugees] in economic ghettos; we cannot marginalize them politically. That is what happened in a lot of European countries such as France and Belgium,” Hasmath said. “They [refugees and migrants] believe they aren’t being represented by the state and they don’t have meaningful interaction with the state. And this can cause distrust and flash ethnic violence. We’ve seen this globally.”

He noted that Canada has been fortunate to not suffer as many terrorism attacks as other countries and, therefore, the government’s focus remains on integration and not on ramping up security or military presence.

“The philosophy of inclusion is unique to Canada and it can be replicated. It requires a moral investment from government and it takes money,” Hasmath said. “It can be done but it takes time.”