Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Baby Killer? Conservative Syrian refugee policy


Yesterday, I discussed Chris Alexander’s after-the-election defence of Bill C-24 and, in particular, the issue of two classes of citizenship. Today I want to concentrate on his defence of his role as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in the Harper government in the formation of its Syrian refugee policy. In the seven minute and forty second interview, most of the time he discussed refugee policy rather than the citizenship issue.  Let me offer his interview in as verbatim form as I could manage, and then follow up with my commentary after parsing what he said. 

1. According to Chris Alexander, “We started bringing Syrian refugees to Canada on a large scale in January, but nobody covered it at the time. Somehow it became divisive that we hadn’t brought them all by the middle of the election campaign.” 
  
2. “This conflict in Syria has been going on for four years and I will say in front of any camera to any journalist that this is the worst conflict of recent times, much worse in terms of loss of life than both Iraq wars, all three Iraq wars if you count the current one, much worse than Afghanistan during our time there in terms of loss of life, and the media coverage, the public attention to it, has been lacking since 2011.” 
  
3. “These are the biggest terrorist organizations in the world. Yes, the international response has been weak because there is no appetite for it after two wars in Iraq and a long campaign in Afghanistan, but we need to pay attention.” 
  
4. “And when these refugees and migrants showed up in Europe in massive numbers, it wasn’t a surprise to me. We have been tracking this, we have been trying to respond, we have been trying to encourage other countries to respond in an organized way resettling larger numbers of refugees to save lives and to ensure that people didn’t have to cross the Mediterranean and lose their lives at great risk.” 
  
5. But none of that generated any profile. Instead I still get people coming up to me  saying you hung up on Carol Off. That’s the story that people insist on telling, that we are cold-hearted Conservatives, that we have never done the right thing.” 
  
6. “And its wrong. And you’ve got to look at the facts. You’ve got to look at who showed leadership.” 
  
7. “There are still more Syrian refugees in this country than Barak Obama has brought to the United States. Has anyone covered that fact?” 
  
8. “It’s a question of communication and responding to accusations, absolutely…Certain messages weren’t delivered and certain accusations were allowed to stand.” 
  
9. “We’re still the party that sees reality as it is, doesn’t want to go on some hippy-trippy jaunt down memory lane and put marihuana in the windows of every store. We’re trying to deal with the real issues that Canadians are facing..” 
  
10. “I’ve heard the Liberal leader say that we should not use the word “terrorism” on several occasions. They are just misunderstood people.” 
  
11. “And it pains me as a person who spent six years on behalf of Canada and the United Nations in Afghanistan and who worked two years as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to try to get a better response to Syrian refugees to bring 23,000 Iraqi refugees to Canada. I have never seen one article written about that in this country.” 
  
12. “Cost, safety, operational standards for which Canada is renowned are all issues. We have the best record in the world for refugee resettlement because we do it well, we meet certain standards. We check out who people are. We make sure that human smugglers aren’t involved. We make sure identity theft isn’t involved. We make sure people are whom they say they are. We make sure that criminals don’t benefit from Canada’s generous refugee policies and when you start moving large numbers of people in short periods of time, all of that can be compromised. So I would urge the government to do more on Syria but do it carefully and insure that Canada’s best traditions and high standards are respected.” 
  
1. a) Did the Conservatives start bringing Syrian refugees to Canada on a large scale in January? 

b) Did they receive no coverage of their activities on behalf of Syrian refugees? 

c) Did the issue only become divisive during the election campaign? 

d) And was that because the Conservatives had not brought all the refugees to Canada by the middle of the election campaign? 

In 2013, Canada pledged to take in 1,300 Syrian refugees over the next twelve months. It took the government 20 months, virtually to the end of 2014. The government promised to bring in only 200 government-sponsored refugees and 1,100 sponsored privately by groups or individuals. However, given the deficiency of visa officers in the field and processing officers in Winnipeg, private sponsorships were taking 12 or more months. In the first eight months of 2013, only 9 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada. Under pressure from the NDP immigration critic, Alexander kept obfuscating on the number of arrivals, and his inadequate replies received wide coverage. 
  
By mid-2015, Alexander could only confirm that there were 1,297 Syrian refugees physically present in Canada as of July 2 even though 1,012 Syrian refugees made inland claims and were not resettled but arrived here and claimed asylum. Though the pledge to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years was signalled in January 2015, only in the beginning of July of 2015 did Canada announce that it was preparing to substantially increase the number of Syrian refugees this country will accept. The Conservatives planned to bring 10,000 more Syrian refugees over three years, or 3,300 per year. Most of those were expected to be privately sponsored. “To meet those kinds of targets,” Mr. Alexander said, “Ottawa is looking to a broader range of Canadians to step up and privately sponsor asylum seekers.” That announcement was widely covered in the media, but it was an announcement about an announcement, for the formal announcement was not expected to come until late summer or the fall. 

The initiative was said to be on a par with “one of our large, national efforts in response to a serious crisis on par with our response to the Vietnamese boat people [60,000 over 18 months when the number of refugees was less than half those from Syria], Idi Amin in Uganda in 1972 [7,000 of the accounted for approximately 43,000 Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin] and the 1956 crackdown in Hungary [37,000 of 200,000 refugees over only six months].” How 3,300 per year of 4 million refugees could be said to be on a par with the numbers Canada took in these other movements is beyond comprehension. 

The issue did become a big one until the picture of the little three-year-old’s body on the beach appeared in all the media around the world at the end of the first week in October, but no one, absolutely no one, criticized the Conservatives for not having brought all the refugees to Canada by the middle of the election campaign. The Conservatives were criticized for the stinginess of their Syrian refugee policy. 

2. Chris Alexander did say a number of times that the Syrian conflict was the worst in the last few decades. But to say that the media did not cover the conflict is absolute nonsense. Amelia Smith in her study, “Mapping Syria through media coverage of the conflict,” indicated a number of problems covering the story. Though in 2011, western media dedicated “a healthy amount of coverage” to Syria’s conflict, and though the new media were used extensively, in the last two years, there has been extensive coverage, contrary to Alexander’s assertion. However, there has been a distinct tendency to reduce the conflict to a battle between ISIS and the Assad regime.  Further, there has been too little coverage of the international humanitarian work and of the tremendous refugee burden that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have born. But all have been covered. However, the most serious problem is the high risk to journalists. Syria has been designated as the most dangerous country for journalists in 2012, 2013, and 2014, somewhat limiting the amount of coverage. 

3. Alexander claimed that al-Qaeda and ISIS are the biggest terrorist organizations in the world. There are well over 100 terrorist organizations. Hezbollah and Hamas are each larger than ISIS or al-Qaeda. The Taliban may be larger. ISIS may, however, be the most notorious. In any case, the Assad regime has killed many more Syrian civilians than even ISIS. 

4. To say Canada has been a leader in encouraging Syrian refugee resettlement is laughable if it were not so tragic. In terms of witnessing, Canada has settled at most 13,000 refugees worldwide each year over the last three years. Excepting years when we resettled disproportionately high numbers of refugees, Canada generally took 10% of the refugees scheduled by UNHCR for resettlement. The United States takes by far the most.  Of the 21,154 Syrian refugees put forward by UNHCR for resettlement in 2014, Canada took barely 1,000 or less than 5%, an appalling figure in comparison to our past historical record. The UNHCR urged countries to resettle only 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. Canada’s response – not 10,000 per year as would be expected from past practice, but 10,000 over three years. There is no evidence that Canada provided any leadership in advocating higher refugee numbers; practice indicates quite the reverse. 

5. No one said that the Conservatives were cold hearted or never did the right thing. The Conservatives were accused of a woefully inadequate response to refugee resettlement though a reasonably humanitarian response to donations overseas re Syrian refugees. Further, late in the game, the Conservatives were commended for finally waving the requirement of UNHCR approval for refugees scheduled for resettlement, of waving the requirement that all forms by private sponsors had to be precisely accurate before they could be considered, for finally greatly increasing the number of visa officers in Lebanon and increasing the processing officers in Winnipeg. But it was all very tardy and seemed to be only a response to enormous pressure. 

6. “You’ve got to look at the facts. You’ve got to look at who showed leadership.” If you do, you would have to conclude that it was definitely not the Conservatives. 

7. Alexander asserted that Canada took in far more Syrian refugees than Obama ever did. While I think the Obama record on Syrian refugees has been appalling, and by September 2015, the U.S. had only resettled about 1,500 Syrian refugees in total, fewer than Canada, in December 2014, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Anne Richard, announced that the United States would resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2015. As of 7 October 2015, 19,646 Syrian refugee names had been submitted to the U.S. for resettlement. So although the United States had been very tardy, and though its current response has been very inadequate, it is just not true that Canada took many more Syrian refugees than the U.S. We took more, but not even considerably more let alone many more. 

8. Alexander insisted that the problem was inadequate communication on the part of the Conservatives. The problem was inadequate and very tardy response by the Conservatives. 

9. “We’re still the party that sees reality as it is, doesn’t want to go on some hippy-trippy jaunt down memory lane and put marihuana in the windows of every store.” In every store window!!! Come on! If Alexander is representative, he not only indicates that the Conservatives do not see reality as it is, but cannot distinguish fact from fiction. 
  
10. Alexander insisted that Justin Trudeau would not use the term “terrorism but insisted that were just misunderstood people. Perhaps Alexander was not in the House of Commons on 19 February 2015 when Trudeau began his speech as follows: 

“Mr. Speaker, I do not have to tell anyone in the House today about the threat of terrorism and the fear it can instil within those who have witnessed it. We all remember clearly the feelings we had in October as we heard and learned that an armed man had entered Centre Block with the intent to kill. We are still thankful for the heroism shown by our security services that day in keeping us safe during a difficult and confusing time. Coming as it did only days after another, shameful, attack on members of our military, it was a horrible reminder of the murder in cold blood that some people are capable of committing. No matter the motives, terrorism is designed to make us freeze in fear. It is designed to make us constantly question not only our own safety, but also the democratic institutions we have established to keep us safe. It is designed to make us question what is familiar and to suspect what would normally be insignificant. Terrorism is designed to take us so far that we question everything we have built and everything that is good in our fair, just, and open society. That is the point of terrorism, and it is when we willingly walk over that edge of our own accord that terrorism is ultimately successful.” 
  
Hardly an avoidance of the word “terrorism”. 

11. Alexander claimed to never have read one article about the 23,000 Iraqi refugees Canada resettled. Perhaps that is because 23,000 were not resettled. 23,000 was the target by the end of 2015.  I guess he had not read on 7 January 2015,  the news service reports that sympathetically indicated how the Syrian war hampered Iraqi refugee resettlement, etc. Either Alexander does not look for the reading material, does not read it when he finds it, or cannot read. 

12. “Cost, safety, operational standards.” Finally some honesty! These were Alexander’s and the Conservative’s repeated reasons for the tardy and inadequate intake of Syrian refugees. The Conservatives would bring them in, as long as the budget was not burdened.  Further, the department of Immigration’s ability to interview, process and resettle those refugee, and well as the settlement agencies and Agreement Holder’s ability to perform had been severely compromised in the effort to balance the budget while lowering taxes. 

The next shibboleth was the security issue. But as virtually any scholar knows who has studied the issue, coming to Canada as a refugee is the worst route for a terrorist to seek entry into a country. A refugee is too well documented. Enter as a tourist, as an investor, as a student. The terrorist threat is a red herring when it comes to the admission of refugees. In any case, all the political parties buy into the need for security clearances. 
  
The third factor is the elaborate bureaucratic procedures that now cloud and delay sponsorship under the guise of “operational standards”. 

The bottom line: Chris Alexander is a serial exaggerator, a serial distortionist and contortionist, systematically engaging in hyperbole totally unsupported by facts. Canada has not been a “model of humanitarian action.” Far from it. It has been a model of a miserly approach to the Syrian refugee issue.