“You are home. Welcome home.”
As the first Syrian refugees arrived in Canada in December, Prime Minister Trudeau was at the airport to embrace them–and to give out winter coats. While it might be the American Statue of Liberty that bears Emma Lazarus’ timeless words, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” it is Canada that has gone above and beyond to respond to the needs of Syrian refugees. What explains the Canadian willingness to be so accommodating to refugees, while the United States refuses to take a leadership role?
To understand the Canadian response to the Syrian refugee crisis, it is necessary to go back in time to the late ‘70s. The world was witnessing a massive exodus of refugees fleeing Vietnam and Southeast Asia largely in small boats, earning them the nickname “boat people.”
To accommodate the unprecedented number of asylum seekers, Canada developed a unique private sponsorship program in which a group of five or more people could agree to financially support a refugee or refugee family for a year. They were to assume a mentorship role and guide the refugee through the transition to Canadian culture. Canada ultimately brought in 60,000 to 70,000 refugees through this program. In 1986, the people of Canada were presented with the Nansen Medal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for their extraordinary efforts on behalf of the boat people- the only such award given to the entire population of a nation. The program was a collective effort: the private sponsors, not the government, assumed the cost of the refugees.
The program was a success. Peter Goodspeed of LifeLine Syria noted that many of the sponsor groups for Syrian refugees are made up of successfully integrated Vietnamese refugees.
“I think a really important aspect of the program is that private citizens learn about refugee populations,” said Gloria Nafziger, head of Amnesty International Canada’s Refugee Program. “I think it substantially has helped to create an empathy about why refugees need resettlement.” It is by building a bridge of friendship and understanding between refugees and private citizens that Canada has built up the goodwill necessary to undertake another refugee resettlement program.
This concern for refugees played a major role in bringing Trudeau to office last year. The reluctance of incumbent Prime Minister Harper and his Conservative Party to admit refugees drew the ire of voters, who turned to Trudeau for a change in policy.
Part of Prime Minister Trudeau’s platform was a promise to make Canada more responsive to the overwhelming needs of Syrian refugees. He plans to admit 25,000 refugees through the government’s assisted refugee program, and the total number of refugees and asylum seekers admitted into Canada might reach 35,000 to 50,000 by the end of the year, according to Goodspeed. In comparison to the 10,000 Syrian refugees President Obama has directed his administration to admit, the scale of Canada’s project is immense. To understand the relative magnitudes of these programs, consider that the United States has a population of around nine times that of Canada, yet plans to take in fewer than one-third as many refugees.
Canadians are rallying to ensure that the program reaches its goals. “Private groups are stepping up in Canada like we have never seen before,” said Nafziger. Offices, churches, and university groups are all making plans to sponsor refugees. The consensus among the refugee advocates The Politic contacted was that Canada is witnessing an unprecedented outpouring of public support.
“I’ve been working in this sector for almost 18 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. It has been phenomenal,” said Huda Bukhari, Executive Director of the Arab Community Center of Toronto.
“Any one of the groups in Canada who have contacts with the federal government is overwhelmed with requests to sponsor refugees,” said Nafziger. Francisco Rico of the FCJ Community Center of Toronto mentioned that the neighbor of his office is even planning on sponsoring three Syrian refugee families.
Several sources pointed to the diversity and tolerance of the Canadian people as an explanation for Canada’s willingness to open its arms to those eeing from conflict zones.
“Canadians are a very giving people, a very kind people, tend to think the best of people, and have been able to open their homes and their bank account to a lot of these refugees,” said Bukhari.
Despite this overwhelmingly positive image, there remain opponents to the plan. A December 8, 2015 poll by Forum Research shows that Canadians favor refugee resettlement by a slim 48% to 44% margin. Yet, Canada is unquestionably far more willing to accept refugees than America is. It is too simplistic to say that Canada is just more welcoming than America. Might there be something in the two nations’ divergent experiences that can explain their vastly different approaches to refugee acceptance?
The generosity of the Canadian people is certainly a far cry from the reaction of most American governors, who have quickly moved to oppose President Obama’s plan. A November 16, 2015 tweet by Texas Governor Greg Abbott read, “BREAKING: Texas will not accept any Syrian refugees & I demand the U.S. act similarly. Security comes first.” Why do Americans believe that accepting Syrian refugees and keeping the homeland safe are mutually exclusive, while most Canadians do not?
One explanation for the two countries’ varied responses is the effect of differences in their refugee admission apparatuses. The United States does not have the private sponsorship program of Canada. Rather, the American system requires the involvement of the government, a national resettlement agency, and a local affiliate group that does the actual resettling, according to Gaye. She noted, however, that there is a co-sponsorship program that allows private citizens to work with groups like IRIS in resettling refugees and that there has been great demand to participate in it.
What distinguishes the two programs is the level of bureaucratic red tape. The American system requires the participation of two resettlement agencies as well as financial contributions and oversight from the government. While a desire to protect refugees is admirable, this level of regulation appears to be a barrier to resettlement. The Canadian system has shown that a far simpler version of this co-sponsorship program can work effectively. Through this program that trusts the power of civil society to integrate refugees (and costs the government very little!), Canada was able to integrate 70,000 “boat people” and is on its way to integrating many more Syrians. Even if a group of five Americans were willing to sponsor a refugee today, the bureaucracy of the sponsorship process would remain a formidable barrier. With a program so complicated, it is simply impossible to marshal a public response in the United States like that seen in Canada. The roots of this divergence may also lie in the very different relationships the two nations have had with extremism in the Middle East. Americans will never forget the trauma of September 11, 2011 or the two wars fought in its tragic wake.
Americans were shocked that children of Chechen asylum seekers were willing to detonate bombs at the finish of the Boston Marathon. Not long after the tragic attacks on Paris, Americans watched the images of an ISIS-inspired shooting in San Bernardino, California. While Canadian soldiers fought in Afghanistan and Canadian citizens were no doubt a acted by these attacks, Canada simply has not seen the same level of terrorism within its borders.
Rico described this difference in national attitude by noting that while Canada has historically adopted the role of an international peacekeeper, the United States has a far more conflict-based national identity. It is far easier to integrate Syrians into Canada than in the United States, a nation that views the Middle East with deep suspicion.
America has seen its security apparatus fail in ways that Canada has not. Most notably, many of the 9/11 attackers spent considerable amounts of time training in the United States for their suicide missions. The failure to recognize the patterns of these a ackers, followed by the colossal intelligence failures surrounding the invasion of Iraq in 2003, cost the intelligence community a great deal of credibility and self-assuredness. Canadian security agencies have not seen failures on this scale.
As a result, Canadians have faith that their refugee admission process will keep the nation safe. The process has several steps and begins with screening by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It is followed by a thorough review and interview with Canadian immigration officials. Finally, three separate security checks and a medical check are performed.
“People trust the government to do its job,” said Bukhari. As Goodspeed pointed out, it would be far easier for bad actors to come to Canada as a tourist than to gain acceptance through this program.
In the United States the screening process is just as thorough. Refugees are subjected to interviews, background checks by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, and medical checks, according to Alexine Casanova Gaye, Director of Case Management at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). She added that the refugee system was “the most difficult way to get into the country.” Yet, there is a profound public anxiety about a would-be terrorist managing to gain entry, especially after the Paris attacks. It is for this reason that American governors, with great public support, have refused to comply with President Obama’s plan.
While it is hard to re-instill trust in the government’s ability to provide security, the United States can and must look to reform the refugee admission process. By adopting a Canadian-style private sponsorship program, American citizens who have the will and the means to provide a better life for Syrian refugees can do so, without bureaucratic red tape getting in the way. It is time for the United States to join its northern neighbor as a truly humanitarian global leader.