Refugee Policy: Indochinese versus Syrian Refugees

Secularist Religions – continued.

  1. Refugee Policy: Indochinese versus Syrian Refugees

How we treat and incorporate the stranger into the we that we want to become? This emerged as a central issue in the recent Canadian election. Language was used to convey the very opposite message than it appeared to have on the surface. Generosity stood for stinginess or miserly behaviour. Compassion stood for relative indifference. Balance came to stand for a very deformed policy. A speedy and sensitive response came to mean tardiness, delay and interference from the very top.

Stephen Harper asserted in debates and talks that the Conservative Party had been very generous but also very balanced in welcoming the stranger. But his government’s actions and behaviour demonstrated miserliness of the most extreme sort. Generosity came to mean the government sponsoring the intake of at most 2,000 out of over 4 million Syrian refugees in 2016, that is, .00005% of the refugee population. And the balance between ensuring security for the self and generosity by the self was the assurance that the process could be accomplished without spending any more money. Balancing the books took precedence.

In 2013, the government pledged to take 1,300 Syrian refugees over the next 12 months. It did admit 1,300, but over 20 months, or 780 over twelve months. Most of these were sponsored by the private sector, meaning the government merely had to financially support the intake. The government of Canada then announced that it would take 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years, or 3,300 per year with 60% allocated to the private sector, or almost 2,000. About 1,300 were planned to be government sponsored. The pressure on the government built, some of it from Tory party members. The government then upped the planned intake by 10,000 more, but now over four years. Further, they were to be a mixture of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, or 5,000 additional Syrian refugees over four years or 1,250 additional Syrian refugees per year, only 500 of them to be government-sponsored refugees.

It is one thing to announce miserliness dressed up as generosity. It is another to actually sabotage the process put in place. The Globe and Mail in a scoop revealed the Office of the Prime Minister had ordered a “temporary” halt to the processing of Syrian refugee applications. Conservative Leader Stephen Harped then acknowledged that his government had ordered an audit of Syrian refugees admitted to Canada. Why? To ensure security concerns were being adequately addressed. But that did not mean, the government insisted, that members of the PMO were processing files. Presumably, they were just vetoing some, but that was not processing. According to CTV News, quoting Citizenship and Immigration insiders, the PMO went through Syrian refugee applications to ensure that religious minorities, such as Christians, were being accepted over applications from Shia and Sunni Muslims. But the Prime Minister insisted the audit was warranted to ensure security issues were being taken care of properly. Security for the refugees themselves was barely a consideration.

Refugee issues had never heretofore been a significant factor in a federal election in Canada. But in 2015, the pressure on the government grew further. Bowing to pressure, the government announced on 19 September 2015 that it would take the initial 10,000 in 2015 instead of over three years. Further, applicants would be processed faster for they would not have to be cleared first by UNHCR and designated as Convention refugees. Canada would take them as prima facie refugees. This was the key step that would allow the government to take in the 10,000 refugees in one year rather than three.

The government then did take some important steps to help speed up the process.

  1. Even before the next steps, it waived the requirement of prior UNHCR approval for refugees to be considered for resettlement by Canada.
  2. Two top quality civil servants were appointed to coordinate an expedited Syrian refugee program, one for managing external relations with sponsorship groups  and settlement agencies, and the other for governmental coordination of Citizenship Immigration Canada (CIC) with provincial and municipal governments, UNHCR, the IOM, and overseas agencies which might perform specific functions for CIC; the two appointees were, respectively, Deborah Tunis and Bruce Scofield, two very seasoned and accomplished officers of CIC.
  3. In the last few weeks, the number of personnel at the Centralized Intake Office (CIO) in Winnipeg has doubled.
  4. The number of visa officers assigned to Lebanon has been increased to 15.
  5. As long as applications for sponsorship have been substantially complete, acceptance will not be delayed until corrections have been made; instead, acceptance will be issued and time given to make corrections.

Late, but nonetheless steps that will allow Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to get off to a running start on the Syrian refugee issue. However, by the time the writ was dropped and the election held:

  • No monies had been allocated to help private sector organizations complete the 64-page application (it was 6 pages at the time of the Indochinese refugee crisis);
  • Monies were not allocated to settlement agencies to assist with the additional responsibilities in settlement.

It has been a slow running start.

When stinginess is dressed up as humanitarian generosity, when selection of the most vulnerable comes to mean selection of Yazidis, Chaldeans and Assyrians (Christians all) from the urban wastelands of the Middle East rather than a broad selection of refugees from the camps, when processing times become so lengthy because of a shortage of personnel and political interference from the PMO, when we enter into the discourse of extreme contradiction, then we have to recognize that we are in the strongest expression of the post-modern ethos. In the name of the old values, in the name of “old-stock” Canadians as well as newcomers, in the name of us, we define who we are. And instead of a reputation for generosity towards refugees that had been built up after WWII culminating in the Indochinese refugee movement, Canada had become a terrible laggard.

Any quick examination of who we have been will tell you that it was only for a very short period, a half century at most, that we exemplified a Canada that welcomed the stranger and opened its doors to the oppressed. Perhaps since 9/11, the new issue behind the scenes was security and perhaps, Islamophobia. However, when I was in Calgary both before and as the election results were rolling in, I conducted interviews. Only one of my interviewees expressed outright anti-Muslim sentiments. “There were already too many in Calgary.” But security was mentioned by all those who said they were voting for the Conservatives.

All three parties had pledged that all Syrian refugees would be carefully monitored to minimize any security concerns. However, when I interviewed a Syrian mother and her three sons aged 18, 22 and 26 and they described the process they had been through, they were never interviewed by any security officer. Further, in reviewing the questions they were asked, no obvious security issues seemed to have been raised directly or indirectly, except to ask whether they were or ever had been members of ISIS. Again, there appeared to be an apparent discrepancy between rhetoric and what seemed to be happening on the ground, especially since, if individuals come to Canada on a student visa, on a vacation or as a tourist, it is far easier to avoid notice and suspicion of being a terrorist. The refugee route is the worst path for a camouflaged terrorist to come to Canada. Previous scholarship indicated that the refugee process into Canada was the route least likely to be taken by an undercover terrorist since it was a process through which would allow Canada to develop an extensive file on them. Coming as a student or preferably a tourist offered far better chances of avoiding detection.

But we now lived in the post-modern world of doublespeak. In the modern era, solidarity had substituted for unity in order to have a foundation for democratic thinking and practices. Religious tolerance and cooperation in a multi-ethnic world were celebrated. Even in the ancient world, the dictum was welcome the stranger. It meant expressing hospitality to him or her. It did not mean admitting the other into membership. Even Aristotle, by far the best of Plato’s pupils, but a Macedonian, was not allowed to inherit Plato’s academy.

The apogee of modernity in Canada was the acceptance of the Indochinese refugees into this country in what is known as the Boat People Movement. In that effort, there was a partnership of government and civil society, of political leaders and civil servants trained to serve that society as well as their political bosses, and, most interesting of all, a partnership of religious and secular communities in that civil society.  (Cf. Dionne and Dilulio 2001) In fact, the lead organizations in that effort were neither Operation Lifeline nor Project 4000 in Ottawa, but the Mennonite Central Committee and the Christian Reformed Church. They were on the scene both first and last and they contributed the most per member.

This was the great irony – the apogee of accepting the Other as oneself, of recognizing the rights of the Other as a human being, a right that necessitated making provision for those denied rights in their own state – was a movement that was lead, in terms of both order and priority, by religious organizations. The Mennonite Central Committee based in Winnipeg was the first organization of any kind to sign an umbrella agreement with the Government of Canada, to effectively partner with the government in the intake and resettlement of refugees. The Christian Reformed Church was both an advocacy organization on behalf of refugees, in spite of strictures that religious organizations, to retain their charitable status, could not engage in advocacy. More importantly, the church was deeply engaged in the process of sponsoring and resettling refugees. But it was all within a Christian religious context. They wrote that, “We remember that just like the child Jesus and his parents, millions of men, women and children around the world must flee because of violence, racial tension, religious bigotry and natural disasters. And we remember that God has much to say about welcoming the stranger.”

This seemed quite contrary to the traditional view of the separation of church and state, a separation that required a degree of distance between the two, “a wall of separation” in Jefferson’s phrase, and not a humanitarian partnership.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

But the partnership went further. In the Indochinese refugee movement, in Canada, the state had a politically contractual obligation to follow the lead of the civil society because of its guarantee to sponsor a refugee for every refugee sponsored by civil society over and above the number to which it was already committed. So, in the name of one strand of traditional religion and the new strand of the secular human rights and humanitarianism religion, both streams partnered with the government to bring into Canada 60,000 refugees in a period of eighteen months.

But the movement was not without an opposition. After the Canadian government announced its program to welcome the entry of 50,000 Indochinese refugees into Canada, the National Citizens Coalition (NCC) published two full-page ads opposing the new policy. NCC is a Canadian conservative lobby group that campaigns against public services, trade unions, and favours smaller government; Canada’s recently defeated Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was once president. It is not a membership organization. It was founded in 1967 by Colin Brown, backed by a small group of economic conservatives. However, in 1979 it ventured into opposing Canadian refugee policy.

The first full-page ad[1] declared that for every one refugee allowed entry, 16 more would follow sponsored by those already here. Thus, the 50,000 figure would mean 800,000 Indochinese immigrants would be moving to Canada within a few short years. The projections were a gross exaggeration stemming, in part, from using outdated and inapplicable immigration rules about family sponsorship in force after WWII. However, behind the ad were racist beliefs that an influx of a large group of Asians was unwanted based on the fear of “The Yellow Peril,” an interpretation reinforced when Colin Brown and a few others with whom he was associated were interviewed in the media and appeared on TV and radio shows to debate Ron Atkey, the Minister of Immigration.

Operation Lifeline and a large swath of the public, especially the segment involved in private sponsorship, saw nothing wrong with a significant increase in Canadians who could trace their origins to Asia. Nevertheless, this initiative of the National Citizens Coalition, stoked by further falsehoods rooted in racial fears in Canada, could be bad for the movement and would discomfort the refugees after they arrived. The ad was disturbing both in its challenge to refugee policy and in undercutting a positive integration for newcomers. The opposition to the new Canadian Indochinese refugee policy had its first organized leadership.

At the end of the summer of 1979, the NCC sponsored a second full page ad[2] in a number of Canadian newspapers. Based on a survey it had conducted and which it published, the NCC claimed that a majority of Canadians were opposed to the policy permitting the entry of 50,000 Indochinese refugees. The survey questions were both leading and misleading and did not follow scientific protocols for objective opinion surveys. The leadership of the private sponsorship movement viewed this initiative as a real threat to the successful sponsorship and integration of the Indochinese refugees. As it turned out, although the questions were misleading and significantly exaggerated the results, the totals opposed to the policy were not so far off the mark. A fairer secret survey, to which Operation Lifeline did not have access at the time, did indicate that a majority of Canadians opposed the Indochinese refugee program, in good part because of a latent racism in Canada.

Yet the leading sectors in Canada – professional organizations, business associations, municipal leaders, political parties without exception, most Tory cabinet members – all strongly favoured the policy, not just as policy, but as active participants in making the sponsorship program a success. Nevertheless, the private sponsorship movement saw an enormous potential for causing significant damage. Racism and anti-immigration are always potent dangers for a democracy. They stir passions and fears and do not enhance rational debate. They are also very hard to combat, for entering the fray in public just exacerbates the fears and enhances the credibility of those stirring up those fears, though this runs counter to the belief that the public sphere should be founded on rational and civil discourse and respect others.

Dr. Joseph Wong, a leading figure in the private sponsorship program, who would go on to become chair of Operation Lifeline, chair of the United Way in Toronto, leader of a number of important social causes and a recipient of the Order of Canada, met with the founder of Operation Lifeline to discuss this new challenge.[3] The two decided that they could not just fight the NCC by appearing in debates as opponents of the NCC position on the Indochinese refugee program. Nor would quiet diplomacy work behind the scenes. They needed leverage to cut off NCC support given their conviction that the financial sector, though opposed to big government, was not generally racist. In fact, given the amount of support Operation Lifeline had received from that sector, they were convinced that generally economic conservatives would be opposed to the NCC challenge to the policy. Hence, they launched what was then called “Operation Intellectual Kneecapping” to cut off NCC financial support. (Why it was called “intellectual kneecapping” was neither explained nor now recalled; it presumably had something to do with sending a message that the effort was non-violent.)

As it turned out, Joseph Wong knew a prominent supporter and contributor to the NCC. He also knew that this individual was not a racist, but did not know whether he supported the intake of Indochinese refugees. Joseph phoned him and he agreed to meet the two from Operation Lifeline for breakfast at a downtown Toronto hotel at 7:00 a.m. the next day. At that breakfast, the twosome outlined the problem. The businessman indicated that he actively supported the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees and was appalled that an organization that he supported financially would engage in such racist-baiting. He asked for a bit of time and he promised Joseph that he would get back to him. The breakfast ended before 8:00 a.m.

At noon he phoned Joseph and informed him that he had taken care of the problem. He had called a number of his friends who helped finance the NCC and asked for permission to speak on their behalf to Colin Brown who then headed the NCC. They unanimously agreed. He then phoned Colin to say that he was calling, not only in a personal capacity, but representing the group that he had called. He told Colin that if he or the NCC published or said another thing on behalf of the NCC opposing the sponsorship of Indochinese refugees, he and his friends would not only withdraw their financial support, but he would personally phone additional financial contributors of the NCC to urge them to withdraw their support. The NCC would be destroyed.

He assured us that we would hear nothing further from the NCC on the subject. He was true to his word. Operation Intellectual Kneecapping had been a success with relatively little effort on the part of the refugee activists. The credit belongs to the enlightened leadership within the business community. However, it was an example of the new reliance on networking to get things done, a method developed by activists in the sixties. Further, it reinforced a belief that public discourse would best serve a humanitarian cause and conflicted with the values espoused by the secular religion of rights and humanitarianism.

Contrast these events where there was strong government leadership, a solidarity amongst all the political parties and with the leading sectors in Canadian society with the role of government in the current Syrian refugee crisis. A strong letter had been sent to the government by leading figures in support of refugees which argued for a much larger intake.[4] At the beginning of 2015, the Minister of Immigration, Chris Alexander, finally announced a relatively modest but what appeared at first to be at least a significant program for 4,000,000 Syrian refugees, the largest single group of refugees under UNHCR responsibility on the planet. That figure excludes those who are internally displaced estimated to be over seven million. The announcement was widely communicated by the media that Canada had pledged to resettle 10,000 additional Syrian and 3,000 Iraqi refugees. UNHCR, in light of past performance, had set a very modest target of 100,000. Canada had pledged to take its normal allotment of 10%, or 10,000 refugees. But not in one year. The initial announcement spread the intake over three years, only subsequently modified under pressure to one year. Modest indeed!

This was on top of the 1,300 Syrian refugees Canada had pledged to take the previous year but somehow seemed unable to take even that number. Given the scope of the crisis, the pledge at the same time of $90 million in humanitarian aid was at least responsible, but it also communicated that Canada was far more interested in warehousing rather than resettling refugees.

Refugee sponsorship organizations[i] had advocated the entry of 10,000 Syrian refugees, but in a rapid resettlement program, not one spread over three years. The government seemed to have capitulated under pressure. But not in actual performance. Further, the refugee support community had advocated special expedited measures for those with family members already in Canada. The government subsequently backed off the ratio assigning 40% of the 10,000 to be sponsored by the government while 60% were left for private sponsorships, moved to expedite processing, the initiatives always came late and under pressure in contrast to the leadership role of the new Tory government in 1979. Harper had not provided a form of leadership designed to galvanize a nation. In contrast, Sweden, a smaller country in geographical and population terms, had already accepted 40,000 Syrian refugees and expected 80,000 asylum seekers in 2014 alone. Germany had pledged to take in 800,000 and settle 500,000. Canada had totally abandoned its leadership role in refugee resettlement.

In does not help that the UNHCR greeted Canada’s initial announcement with diplomatic obsequious pussyfooting. The original pledge was dubbed “substantial” and a “generous commitment” when it was neither. It was not in keeping with Canada’s strong humanitarian tradition to offer resettlement to refugees worldwide.” It might be rationalized as a result of the weak response to UNHCR’s previous appeals. After all, it took an enormous effort to get the 30,000 in the last round, just over 1% of the Syrian refugee population. UNHCR had upped its target to 2.5% of the Syrian refugee population. Even with pledges not spread over several years, it would take 40 years to resettle all the refugees. Of course, this is somewhat of a distortion since most of the refugees will have settled in countries of first asylum like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. But the Canadian targets and pledges were so miniscule as to be embarrassing.

It does not help that the Canadian performance on the ground had been even worse. By the end of 2014, 1,285 of the year’s pledge of 1,300 had been approved for entry into Canada and Alexander insisted that 1,100 were already here. However, only 360 of that 1,300 had been government-sponsored refugees – 160 above Canada’s initial pledge of 200 – and the rest were privately-sponsored refugees. The refugee sponsors were constantly complaining about the slow and dragged out process of fulfilling those private sponsorships. Alexander’s contention that 1,100 had arrived hardly seemed credible. Further, when one recalls that in the Indochinese refugee movement, the government with only 16 employees in the field was transferring similar numbers of 1,300 per week rather than per year, one realizes how atrocious the Canadian performance has been and was likely to continue to be under a Conservative government. Doubling the total by another ten thousand intake, a number that included both Iraqi and Syrian refugees, yielded only an additional 1,250 Syrian refugees per year, only 500 to be sponsored by the government.

Generous indeed!

There was one ray of light in the announcement. “Canada is focusing on vulnerable individuals and those facing persecution. We make no apologies for putting focus on people in need, some of whom are being persecuted based on their religious beliefs,” said Alexander. In a message sent to the media, a government spokesperson, Kevin Ménard, said that, “Our priority is and will continue to be on those who are at risk because they are a religious minority, a sexual minority, or victims of rape.”[5]

Why is this a ray of light? Isn’t sponsoring Christians ahead of Muslims discrimination? The LGBT community who have been one group of sponsors for Syrian refugees at risk because of sexual orientation should have been delighted. But Professor Nicole LaViolette of the University of Ottawa, who passed away at the end of May 2015, disagreed. She denounced the discrimination. LaViolette, a research pioneering scholar on the persecution of LGBT members overseas who flee as refugees, had advised the LGBT community about the use of private sponsorship to help their cohort in Syria. She deplored the discrimination favouring using sexual orientation as a preference guide. As she wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on 11 February 2015, “Canadian LGBT communities must insist that the Conservative government respect its international obligations to provide refugee protection without discrimination. Sexual minorities know only too well the harm caused by discrimination. Queer Canadians should not support doing unto others what has long been done to us.”[6] So, in the name of the universal secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism, acceptance of the most vulnerable was rejected.

It is truly a strange world in which we live.

[1] The Globe and Mail, 24 August 1979.

[2] The Globe and Mail, 12 September 1979.

[3] This information is based on interviews and recollections of Joseph Wong and Howard Adelman.

[4] The signatories on the open letter included Dr. Muhammad Shrayyef and Fayaz Karim of the Canadians in Support of Refugees in Dire Need (CSRDN), Chris Friesen, Chair, Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance (CISSA-ACSEI), Brian Dyck, Chair, Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holder Association (SAH Association), Professor Jennifer Hyndman, Centre for Refugee Studies, York University, Dr. Aliya Khan and Dr. Irene Turpie, Doctors For Humanity (DFH), Dr. Anas Al Kassem, Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM) and Loly Rico, President, Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR).

[5] CBC News, 7 January 2015.

[6] See Nicole LaViolette, “Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and the Refugee Determination Process in Canada,” Journal of Research in Gender Studies 68:123, 2014. See also two chapters of hers: “Overcoming Problems with Sexual Minority Refugee Claims: is LGBT Cultural Competency Training the Solution?” in Thomas Spijkerboer (ed.) Fleeing Homophobia, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Asylum (Oxford: Taylor & Francis Books, 2013); and “Sexual Minorities, Migration, and the Remaining Boundaries of Canadian Immigration and Refugee Law,” in Soheila Pashang (ed.) Unsettled Settlers: Barriers to Immigration (Whitby, Ontario: Sitter Publications, 2012).


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