I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – Part III of V: Convention and Humanitarian Refugees

If one reads Molloy’s book co-authored with Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, one might be convinced that national laws are the source of rights and obligations and not the other way around; laws protecting refugees are not rooted in universal rights even when states offer that justification. Even in the case of Convention refugees, the latter are only protected as a matter of right if a state subscribes to the international norm and makes it integral to its own laws as Molloy documents. Why then do nation-states accept the responsibility for accepting refugees who have landed on their doorstep and can prove that they have been persecuted? More significantly, why do states subscribe to and recognize a norm, allegedly based on fundamental human rights that purportedly inheres in the individual, even when that international norm had not been integrated into the laws of a state? Neither Miliband nor Molloy even attempt to answer that question.

Molloy does offer a clue. In the section on “The Convention Refugee Cornerstone” (64-65), he describes why Canadian officials decided to make the Convention Refugee Seeking Resettlement Class the key frame for protecting and offering resettlement to refugees. That class was to be defined as those individuals who met the Convention definition but did not have a settlement option or durable solution. In other words, they were purportedly Convention refugees who could neither be repatriated to the country from which they had fled nor settled within the country where they initially found refuge. However, as the criteria for acceptance were filled, it became obvious that the vast majority of those fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not Convention refugees in any normal sense.

First, they never had to prove that they had a well-founded fear of persecution. Second, the class was defined collectively in terms of the ethnicity of the group fleeing war and violence rather than persecution – Syrians, Rohingya, Vietnamese (rather than Sino-Vietnamese who were persecuted). Thirdly, if they truly had a right to be protected, why did Canada add the requirement that the immigration officer making the determination use the criterion that, “they could become successfully established in Canada.” If they had a right to Canadian protection, the prospect of successful economic and social integration is irrelevant.

Fourth, those who met the Convention definition but were not on Canadian territory did not have the right to Canadian protection. That right kicked in when they hit the Canadian frontier or landed at a Canadian airport. Canada did not project that right abroad. If the intention of officials and legislators was to define a class for those who met the definition and could be targeted for resettlement, as long as they had not found a solution in another country, why were the immigration officers not provided with specific criteria to ensure that refugee applicants accepted abroad were Convention refugees?  Molloy insists that officers were instructed to search for refugees who met the definition and would not become dependent on the public purse were accepted.

Given the rate of acceptance, given the time taken to interview the refugees, there was no way in which an officer could determine with any degree of probability that the applicant was a Convention refugee. The decision formally, and by legislative definition, said they were Convention refugees, but practice made clear that this was a formal justification rather than a substantive one, a cover for accepting refugees for resettlement into Canada whether or not Canadian immigration officers, or anyone else, could justify that they were Convention refugees. Formal requirements are one thing; substantive requirements are another. Conferring an authority to someone to determine who was a Convention refugee and giving that “refugee” the same effective protection as if they were determined to be a Convention refugee, did not make them Convention refugees except in a purely formal sense. As I interpret what took place, the legislative reference to the Convention was merely a cover.

Officials in Canada wanted to offer groups protection through resettlement in Canada. They had been doing so since the Hungarian refugee movement of 1956-7. The process continued with Czechs, Ugandan Asians and Chileans through ad hoc practices. Officials wanted to formalize in law what Canada was already doing. This was hardly an effort to root refugee protection in universal rights.

Canada had ratified the Convention and Protocol in 1969. In 1970, Canada legislated the framework for implementation. That would have sufficed to ensure Canada conformed to its international institutional obligations. The Convention says nothing about resettlement. Including that provision went far beyond anything required by the Convention. Cabinet agreed to use the Convention to identify people for resettlement from abroad no longer confined to Europe. An “oppressed minority policy” enabled cabinet to direct its officials to select oppressed people who were not Convention refugees because they were still in their own country. In reality, the oppressed minority policy proved to be a very handy tool used extensively in Uganda, Chile and Argentina. The 1976 act formally offered the possibility of using the designated class for the oppressed and persecuted under the cover of the Convention definition, even when the refugee was not even outside his or her own country. Hence, a Latin American designated class, later renamed the political prisoners and oppressed persons designated class.

Similarly, the cover of the Convention was used to include Jews fleeing the Soviet Union who wanted to migrate but were neither outside their own country nor could prove they were individually targeted for persecution. After all, no Soviet citizen had the right to emigrate. In any case, these “refugees” hated being designated as refugees. Raph Girard, the Canadian immigration officer in charge in Rome managing the flow of these “refugees,” invented the designated class regulation to facilitate the selection and processing of Eastern European escapees that the officers encountered rather than what the Convention defined a refugee to be. The self-exiled designated class focused, not on persecution, but on the reality that the Soviets and their allies stripped such people of their citizenship, making them conform to what Hannah Arendt called humans without rights rather than Convention refugees. Formally in law and by regulation, all the other parts of the legislation that conferred   practical benefits on Convention refugees were extended to the designated class.

In early 1978, Canadian immigration mandarins, long before the public and the media were interested in and taken up by the plight of the Indochinese refugees, began working on the use of the designated class to apply to the Indochinese since Canadian officials recognized that the people escaping in boats were going to have to be resettled expeditiously, regardless of their motivation for running away. Speed of determination would be essential otherwise first countries of “asylum” would not permit them to land. With only 45 minutes at most to determine whether anyone was a Convention refugee, officials recognized that, given the large resettlement operation anticipated, which turned out to be even larger than expected, there was no time to consider whether the individual had a well-founded fear of persecution. Instead, they were simply given the same settlement package as Convention refugees as if they were actually determined to be Convention refugees. Officials rarely looked at these refugees through a “protection” lens but rather through a commitment to a practical solution.

What about the second reason Miliband offered for giving what came to be called the Designated Class, namely that empathy and compassion were built into our DNA, if even in only a metaphorical sense? That is more readily dismissed as a fiction. That would make the xenophobic supporters of Trump in America, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, not to count those who voted for Brexit in Great Britain and who supported Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, or Geert Wilders’s party in the Netherlands, members of a different species with a fundamentally different nature or DNA. Even in Canada with the overwhelming effort of the private sponsorship program, there were only 7,600 sponsorships of the 32,281 privately sponsored Indochinese refugees who arrived in Canada in 1979-80. Though viewed as extremely large at the time and since, even if the size of each sponsorship group was calculated on the basis of ten Canadian members rather than the minimum of five, that would mean that only 76,000 Canadians were involved in the direct sponsorship of refugees, approximately .3% of the population at the time.

Even when we look at the numbers who supported the decision to admit Indochinese refugees in 1979 (Molloy 155-6), they do not indicate that most Canadians supported the government initiatives:

Month Commitment Too High Too Low Just Right
February 5,000 52% 7% 37%
July 50,000 38% 13% 49%
Aug.-Oct. 50,000 52% 11% 37%

Only when media and elite support was at its peak in July of 1979 did a majority support the intake of the refugees. More commonly, a majority almost consistently thought the figure was too high, even when it totaled only 5,000. If empathy and compassion are built into our DNA, then those who share that trait as a dominant gene number under 1%. 48% may have the DNA as a recessive gene. About 52% seem to lack that gene altogether.
The support for the intake of a designated class of refugees, in this case, the Indochinese, was never really rooted in universal rights or in our biology. Even those who helped Miliband’s family escape Nazi Europe never claimed a universal moral precept for their actions. Not “everyone” must, but “on doit” (Miliband 46), one must, or, as those interviewed in 1979-80 indicated, they personally had to act. The compulsion was inner, not an external universal obligation or duty and not because all had to act.

Even Christians who sponsored refugees, such as the Mennonite Central Committee which led the pack of Christian organizations in signing Master Agreements that guaranteed the private sponsorships of their members, did not cite even their Christian beliefs as the prime motive for sponsoring refugees. As Bill Janzen explained (Molloy 78), they were motivated by the following factors, possibly in their order of importance: 1) they themselves had been refugees; 2) they had successfully partnered with the Canadian government previously; 3) their church ethos dictated acting for good in society; 4) they had extensive experience in working with Vietnamese overseas; 5) they lacked a cynical belief – held by many on the left – that the matching formula was a ploy to dump government responsibilities onto the private sector; 6) there was also an absence of a skeptical belief – again from the left – that government favoured taking in refugees from Communist countries rather than those fleeing a right-wing dictatorship. This strongly suggests that experience rather than universal norms served as the main propellant behind the initiative to sponsor.

To be continued…


Part II of V: I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – Xenophobia, Idealism and Pragmatic

Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 19, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka 75-1980, 

Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.



In 1807, the German philosopher Johann-Gottlieb Fichte addressed the German nation in Berlin that was then occupied by the French. For him, and for many others, the state is the expression of and the instrument for reifying and protecting the values of the nation, of the “people”. However, as Tillich wrote in The Courage to Be, “There is a moment in which the self-affirmation of the average man becomes neurotic ….  If this happens—and it often happens in critical periods of history—the self-affirmation becomes pathological. The dangers connected with the change, the unknown character of the things to come, the darkness of the future make the average man a fanatical defender of the established order. He defends it as compulsively as the neurotic defends the castle of his imaginary world…This is the explanation of the mass neuroses which usually appear at the end of an era.” (69-70)

Whether it was Fichte in Germany, the historian Lionel Groulx or the National Citizens Coalition in Canada during the Indochinese Refugee Movement, or Donald Trump and his followers today, these are the enemies of both Miliband and Molloy. But the two authors view the problem from very different perspectives. Miliband focuses on the mind-set of governments and citizens who share in a globalized vision of global rules upheld by global norms and funded by global humanitarian efforts. Molloy documents a bottom-up enterprise in one nation, Canada, in which civil servants formed the fulcrum between political leaders and citizen activists; hearts and minds combined and were prompted by and fed into a unique Canadian political ethos.

Miliband wrote that it is easy for the government, caught up in developing and implementing policy “to allow the story of its purpose and values to be lost.” Molloy has documented how those purposes and values were expressed in the very fact and the manner in which policy was developed and implemented. The irony, however, is that Miliband considers that he was better at government than politics whereas his “approach was to rally people affected by the issues around big goals,” a political rather than a governing function. Molloy writes primarily about the detailed functioning of government in dealing with a refugee crisis in order to achieve big goals.

Thus, though united in their opposition and in their support for refugees, they differ quite radically in the value assumptions underlying both their activities and their analyses. Miliband argues that welcoming vulnerable and vetted refugees is about rights and is about doing what is right, is about defining a national character as well as serving national interests (65-66). Molloy’s depiction suggests it is a much more mundane task of preparing the legislative and regulatory framework, developing the professionalism and élan among staff, and working in tandem with civil society and the media. National character is not so much a prerequisite of such action but what is developed from that action. The treatment of refugees is not a weather vane of values (Miliband 115) but a mode which allows for expression and expansion of one set of values.

“This is a fight for international cooperation over unilateral grandstanding, for the benefits of pluralism over the tyranny of groupthink, and for the enduring importance of universal values over the slicing and dicing of populations and religions in a fake and faulty clash of civilizations. It is a fight for values, insights and institutions that imperfectly uphold the best of human nature in the face of the impulses and arguments that humour the worst.” (Miliband 119) Though Molloy too endorses pluralism, ethnic diversity and multiculturalism, his emphasis is on good governance to hold it all together.

David Petrasek in a 2 February 2018 article, “Liberals’ Vague ‘Values’ Talk Undermines Rights Promotion,” puts the difference in stark relief as he allies with Miliband and rakes the current Trudeau government over the coals. The issue is not over the universality of human rights, but over the grounding and defence of policies in support of human rights. Do we do so because it is the decent thing to do, an expression of virtue, because of international laws and instruments that make rights binding on all states, and the utility of rights in preventing armed conflict, supporting democracy and good governance? Molloy would not dispute any of these claims, simply their relevance in tackling the bulk of the refugee problem. That required rooting the response in terms of expressing a specific set of Canadian values that both Conservative and Liberal governments in Canada at the time believed in.

As Molloy noted in his volume co-authored with Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, in 1937 Prime Minister Mackenzie King insisted on rejecting Jewish refugees because of “the unchanging, fixed nature of a Canada based on British values.” (449) Molloy, and Prime Minister Trudeau currently, based their positive response to refugees on developing rather than reifying Canadian values.

As Canada’s current Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, opined, Canada should promote its values – diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism, the rule of law – but not impose those values, not insist that the values must be adopted by all states. Witnessing was the order of the day, not insisting that everyone act on the basis of a universal set of principles or rights. This is the central difference between Miliband and Molloy. The latter also includes positioning Canada on the world stage while acknowledging the crucial role of the media and an involved citizenry.

“Look after the most vulnerable, by upholding their rights, and you don’t just help them, you set a benchmark for the way shared problems are tackled. You establish mutual responsibility as a founding principle of international relations. And you set the stage for tackling other problems, from climate change to health risks.” (Miliband 119) The reality, however, is that if Canada had based its intake of refugees on the basis of refugee rights established in the Refugee Convention, the country would only have been able to admit a very small fraction of the large number that it did admit.

For Miliband, the most important lesson he obtained from government service was the need and importance of being self-critical, of standing outside “your own mind-set and recognize its flaws as well as strengths.” This cognitive exercise is indeed crucial. Miliband notes that Canada stood second to the United States in the most refugees resettled the previous year – 47,000. President Trump cut by more than half the Obama administration’s FY 2017 admissions ceiling from 110,000 to 50,000. Trump also suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days, and limited admissions of refugees from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. The administration set the refugee ceiling at its lowest level ever – 45,000 for FY 2018; only 53,716 were resettled in 2017 compared to 84,994 in 2016; only 37% were principals. Of those 53,716, almost two-thirds were spouses and dependent children brought over through sponsorship rather than through the family reunification program.

In other words, Canada with only 10% of the population of the U.S. and an even smaller percentage of its GDP, now admits almost as many refugees as the U.S. Miliband refers to the unique Canadian private sponsorship program that makes Canada such an outstanding leader in refugee settlement, but does not examine that model or attempt to learn whether lessons learned could be applicable elsewhere. Perhaps it is not enough to look inside oneself; it may be even more important to examine in detail the experience of high-performing countries.

Miliband asks why we should help refugees. This is a very different question than why we do or how we can help refugees. Miliband answers, as many have before him, we are enjoined (by the Bible, the Qur’an, etc.) to love the stranger and help avoid the globalization of indifference. He quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s injunction to identify as strangers, as if the two obligations to love and to identify with, were the same. But one injunction says that we love because we regard the other as ourselves. The other, also echoed in the Qur’an, says that we help the strangers because we regard or have experienced ourselves as strangers.

Is this a distinction without a difference? It is not. There is a radical disjunction between beginning with a universal imperative versus starting with experience. The first cognitively dictates an emotion – love; the second emotionally dictates behaviour. Molloy’s book offers evidence of the efficaciousness of the latter. Hannah Arendt argued that refugees were not in the end protected by a universal doctrine, whether of rights or a universal imperative, because the very nature of being a refugee is that you are denied “the right to have rights.” For in the nation-state system, the effort to protect refugees through a universal doctrine of rights has had only a marginal impact on the number of refugees offered protection.

If refugee assistance is at the heart of the purpose and nature of the global order according to Miliband (115), relatively little would have been done for the Indochinese refugees on the basis of rights and duties. Receiving countries had not signed onto that global order. Resettlement countries became involved, not to expand the global moral order, but simply to play a part without making a universal claim.

Molloy’s book demonstrates how a doctrine of identification as strangers by a minority of Canadians helped very large numbers of refugees who lacked individual rights, even rights under the Geneva Refugee Convention. Miliband cites his own family history to claim “that it was the decisions of individual citizen that saved the lives of my relatives eighty years ago, and that same spirit is what is needed.” However, he seems to have ignored the import of his own family history

The core issue is that, as Michael Walzer wrote, refugees lack membership in a state that will guarantee their protection. Nations have the right to determine who will become its members. The issue then is how and why and by what means will nations accept refugees who are not their members, refugees who may, on first appearance, have little culturally in common with a nation’s current population.

This raises the issue of nomenclature. There are Convention refugee claimants, asylum seekers who arrive at a country’s borders or its airports and claim refugee status because they were victims of persecution under the Convention. If their claim is recognized, they are protected by the state in which they made the claim for it was determined that they cannot safely go home. Such asylees are not to be confused with refugees fleeing war and conflict, a confusion Miliband in his compression sometimes makes. (p. 39) Refugees of the latter kind cannot by and large claim that they were targeted; they fled violence and war, not persecution. As Molloy makes clear, these were part of what was called a “designated class,” identified by membership in a group rather than an individual with a well-founded fear of persecution. They were accepted for resettlement from outside the country because the possibilities of repatriation or settlement in the first country in which they landed did not seem to be feasible. Humanitarian rather than Convention refugees make up the vast majority of the refugee population.

So why do we accept them if we do not have to do so as a matter of right and because our country has signed the Geneva Convention? Miliband offers six reasons: 1) ideals; 2) it is in our DNA to be compassionate; 3) the creation of institutions like the Atlantic Charter during WWII began to define global obligations and mutual interdependence among states; 4) refugees are our obligation as a consequence of a resettlement country’s foreign policy mistakes; 5) the need for stability in an interconnected world; and 6) for strategic reasons since, if nothing is done, there will be no stability and security for ourselves if refugees lack a national home in which they are members and can be protected.

Were these reasons valid when it came to the Canadian resettlement of Indochinese refugees?

To be continued…

Syrian Refugees

To readers of my blog:

A few of you have inquired what I am up to since I have not sent out a blog for ten days. Basically, I am serving as an indentured unpaid but voluntary bondsman on Vancouver Island helping my son Daniel establish his aquaponics business on the farm he purchased near Duncan, BC. I am also helping another son in providing feedback on his film script. I am also catching up on long delays to answering my correspondence. (I receive an average of fifty emails per day, about 5-20 requiring answers and 1 or more needing extensive replies. I have written parts of three different blogs but had to get on the road again to get here, and since then have been so busy that they were never completed. I will try to get back to them this week. However, in the interim, you may be interested in one reply to an inquiry that I sent out this morning on Syrian refugees. The reply follows a copy of the inquiry.


Dear Mr. Adelman,

Hi! I would like to thank you for being willing to do this interview with me. As a reminder, I am inquiring about why there are so many Syrian refugees in the world, and what can be done to improve their situation. I am really passionate about this because through the news, I have acquired a better understanding about Syrian refugees, and where they are coming from. I believe that these refugees deserve a better future after all of the violence that they have experienced. Unfortunately, Through this interview, I am really hoping that you will be able to answer a few of my questions. I have not been able to find answers to my questions over the internet, since much of the information I came across does not present a clear, solid answer.

I have a few questions about you. I found your biography on the York University website, under “Centre for Refugee Studies”. I noticed that some of your interests included refugees and several other fields surrounding it, including refugee policy and resettlement. How did you become interested in this topic, and for how long have you engaged in these studies?

Below, I have included four questions about the Syrian refugees and their situation that I have been trying to seek answers to.

  1. Canada has pledged to accept more than 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February. Many of the Syrian refugees want to embark on a new journey; however, I’m wondering whether Canada is even prepared to host the refugees. I understand that there will definitely be additional costs in order for the Syrian refugees to resettle, such as food and a place to live. With these costs, how long will Canada be able to sustain their population with the allotted budget? Moreover, if Syrian refugees resettle in Canada, how will this impact the current population or people who are already living here? Will things such as job competition, a new identity, or other factors soon become an issue?
  1. Some economists believe that if Syrian refugees come to Canada, they will make a great contribution to the society and help to stimulate the economy, through an increase in workforce and productivity. However, what proof is out there that the Syrian refugees will not be a burden on Canada’s shoulders? Could the refugees actually drain or potentially weaken the economy instead? Some other facts to consider is that the Syrian refugees are indefinitely going to experience initial hurdles when they first settle in Canada. Issues that could arise include specific job qualifications or experience, language barriers, or even exclusion from the existing population. Is there a definite answer to this question, or is it too early to tell the effects?
  1. I am wondering how the media is able to influence how people view Syrian refugees, perhaps in a negative way. They seem to have the power to sway the minds of people across the entire nation. Is it because of our existing uncertainty towards Syrian refugees, or another reason altogether? After Germany was so generous and accepted so many refugees, ISIS rose up and there were accounts of attacks that had happened. This was also the case in Paris; one of the terrorists was found with a Syrian passport. Could situations such as these potentially jeopardize the futures of Syrian refugees?
  1. My fourth question is a matter of your opinion. Do you feel that accepting Syrian refugees should be considered as a “global responsibility”? Many of the European Union (E.U) countries have had past experiences with these types of refugee crises; however, I question whether they are applying this knowledge to today’s Syrian refugee crisis. Have their views shifted over time? If so, why?

Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Adelman. I appreciate your time to participate in my interview and to answer my questions. I hope you respond soon!






  1. About myself and my interest in refugee studies:

I first became involved with refugees sixty years ago when I was in charge of the student co-operative residences at the University of Toronto and helped organize the use of those residences for the initial housing of Hungarian refugees when they came to Toronto, Canada. But my intellectual interest only took off twenty-three years later when, in 1979, I began Operation Lifeline, the organization to encourage the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees. After the initial flurry or organization, in 1980 I helped found the journal, Refuge, and set up at York University the Refugee Studies Project to collect literature and encourage research and scholarship initially on the Indochinese refugees and subsequently on all refugee populations.

On Syrian Refugees:

  1. What policies and practices are in place in Canada to host Syrian refugees?

The answer is threefold:

  1. We have a Department of Immigration which has had a long policy and years of practice in the resettlement of refugees, but which had grown rusty with relative disuse in resettling large numbers over very recent years. But the institutional memory remained and Canada had a sixty-year history of gearing up rapidly to ensure the resettlement of large numbers of refugees.
  2. For years, churches and organizations, like the Jewish Immigration Service (JIS), have been involved in partnering with the government in helping resettle refugees. In the Immigration Act that came into effect in 1978, provision was made to allow those private organizations and religious institutions, as well as any group of five or more Canadians who could prove they could support the refugees for one year, to initiate the private sponsorship of refugees. Hence Operation Lifeline and the huge outpouring of efforts to privately sponsor refugees led initially by the Liberal government and then, after June 1979, by the Tory government of Joe Clark.
  3. Since, and in good part as a result of the resettlement of large numbers of Indochinese refugees beginning in 1979, Canada has set up a system of privately-organized and publicly funded resettlement agencies in major centres across the country to help facilitate the resettlement of refugees.

So the main issue is institutional, not funding. Within the overall Canadian budget, the cost of resettling refugees is relatively small. Further, though in the Syrian refugee resettlement program it may end up costing $400 million, those funds could be considered as a long-term capital investment in human resources rather than simply an expenditure allocated to the budget in a single year since those refugees, once resettled, more than pay back the costs of resettlement in increased tax revenues for the government years after the refugees are resettled. Canada has a population base 50% larger than in 1979 and can easily afford to take in 50,000 Syrian refugees per year.

As for the impact on Canadians already here, any addition to the work force, whether from Canadians born here and entering the work force, from immigrants and refugees who arrive here as children and teenagers or from mature adult refugees and immigrants entering the labour market, increases the competition for jobs, but, at the same time, increases the demand for jobs, and, for immigrants and refugees who are compelled to spend a much higher percentage of their income on resettlement and immigration, a higher percentage of their income is spent on locally-produced goods and services.

As for identity and cultural and social conflicts, these always exist in all societies, but the major source of problems by far always come mainly from the existing population and, thankfully in Canada, the percentage of the population resisting the intake of foreigners has become a minority. Enlightened political and social policies are important in reducing that minority further. The issue of cultural and racial clashes has been enormously reduced in Canada since 1979.

  1. Costs versus Benefits of Resettling Refugees

As Canada has developed a more sophisticated economy far more dependent on the development of high skill levels as the economy became more diverse and more globalized, the payback in initial investment has taken longer, but there is still a significant payback, and certainly from the next generation born from and raised by those immigrants and refugees, who, in general, are raised with a built-in pressure for success. As for proof, you will have to do your research on the studies by economists in Canada. The overwhelming evidence is that over the long term, refugees, as well as immigrants, are a net benefit to the Canadian economy in spite of initial hurdles when they first settle in Canada over specific job qualifications or experience, language barriers, or even exclusion by the existing population, the latter, as I stated above, having become greatly diminished over the years.

  1. The Role of the Media

There is a definite correlation between the support by the media and the response of Canadians. The Canadian media in general have demonstrated a long history of support for the intake and resettlement of refugees that has been crucial to the outstanding Canadian success story in resettling refugees. Further, in every refugee movement, or almost everyone – the Bahá’is may be one exception – there have always been some “bad apples”. The Syrian refugee movement has been branded as a potential terrorist threat from a very small minority who infiltrate the refugee movement. That danger is infinitely small in Canada given our process of selection. The real danger comes from homegrown terrorists who emerge generally but no exclusively from among second generation refugees who are marginalized. Canada has overwhelmingly escaped that problem because of our history, our practices and our institutionalization of successful integration, not to be confused with assimilation.

By the way, there is absolutely no evidence of a causal connection between Germany’s generosity towards Syrian refugees and the rise of ISIS. But certainly when those who carry Syrian passports commit atrocities, this brings about bad public relations for the intake and resettlement of refugees. Hopefully, enlightened minds and deep institutional practices will surmount that perceived threat as they did when a group arose objecting to the intake of Indochinese refugees, not only on racist grounds, but over alleged fears that foreign governments and bodies would use the Indochinese refugee resettlement to infiltrate Canada with Communist spies. That proved to be wholly false in the case of the Indochinese, but in the case of my own community of Jewish immigrants and refugees years earlier, a very few, usually second generation, turned out to develop as communist spies, but the numbers were so tiny and the proportion making such a huge contribution to Canada so extremely large, that the risk proved to be very heavily weighted towards taking the very small risk.

  1. The Global Responsibility to Refugees

Yes, accepting refugees is a global responsibility, but just because most countries do not take on that responsibility does not mean that the countries that do should not. When I was much younger, only a small minority of states defended democracy and the cause of universal human rights, but those numbers have increased since. This too has happened with the acceptance of helping refugees as a global responsibility. In 1979 at the time of the Indochinese refugee movement, there were only ten countries that accepted a responsibility to help the proximate countries deal with the huge burden of refugees. That number has increased enormously since, but still constitutes only a minority of even developed nations and there remain in Europe and elsewhere states, or, more accurately, governments that refuse to accept he principle of burden sharing. Further, it must be remembered that it is the adjoining states – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey in the case of Syrian refugees – that have the overwhelming and primary burden of the Syrian refugees. For example, the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan constitute 15-18% of its population. That is equivalent to Canada, a very much richer country, taking in over 5 million refugees instead of 500,000 or 10% of that number or the 50,000 we will likely take in by the end of this year, that is 1% of that number Jordan has taken in.

Hope this helps.



With the help of Alex Zisman

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus Part IV: 1981 – 1989

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part IV: 1981 – 1989


Howard Adelman

Nong Samet Camp in Thailand became home to about 700 Vietnamese refugees who had crossed Cambodia from Vietnam into Thailand on 18 December 1981. Refugees fleeing Vietnam were no longer exclusively Boat People. By September 1982, the numbers had grown to 1,804 who had crossed by land from Vietnam. Initially, Thailand prevented Western Countries from interviewing these refugees lest, in the minds of Thai authorities, Thailand be turned into a magnet for refugees traveling on this new route. International pressure, a commitment by Western states to resettle the Vietnamese refugees and intervention by the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross), led to a reversal of this policy. ICM, the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration, interviewed the refugees as the intermediary for the 15 Western countries offering asylum. By 28 January 1983, 1,713 of the refugees had been offered resettlement, 60% going to the U.S. On 9 February 1983, the processing centre was closed providing a definitive mark for the onset of the final stage in dealing with the Indochinese refugees.

The remaining refugees, by then increased to 122, were transferred to the Khao I Dang near Ban Nong Samet. Given this narrative, one might gain the impression that the refugee crisis was diminishing. The net numbers left were decreasing, but refugees kept flowing into camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia and even Indonesia. However, donor fatigue was on the horizon and the kickback against resettlement had begun. Initially it was directed only at Laotian and Cambodian refugees traveling by land with relatively the lowest barriers to flight.

Just before a book appeared by Larry Clinton Thompson entitled Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982 documenting the role of American mavericks and malcontents from the State Department, military, USAID, CIA, and the Peace Corps who used their commitment and expertise to undertake the actual work on the ground in resettling the refugees, the same work that only 16 formal employees from the Department of Immigration in Canada were doing, a four-member panel headed by Marshall Green, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, reported in August 1981 directly to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig and poured cold water on Laotian and Cambodian migrants. The report claimed that those currently crossing from Cambodia and Laos into Thailand were almost all economic migrants. Though flows were predicted to continue from Laos and Cambodia and even increase, the panel recommended a policy shift and that, henceforth, Cambodian and Laotian migrants no longer be treated as refugees but as economic migrants.

Initially, only the Vietnamese Boat People were to be exempted from this policy shift. My colleague and later writing partner, the Norwegian scholar Astri Suhrke, published an essay, “Indochinese Refugees: The Law and Politics of First Asylum” in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (vol. 467) in a special issue focused on The Global Refugee Problem: U. S. and World Response (May, 1983, pp. 102-115). When the flow of Indochinese refugees seemed to have become self-perpetuating, she noted that receiving countries were now positioning themselves to both resist taking more refugees and reduce the flow. It would take another six years to complete this task, and it would be applied to Vietnamese as well as Khmer and Laotians in flight. The Orderly Departure Program (ODP) had been initiated the year before in an agreement with the government of Vietnam as the first phase of the shift in policy applied to Vietnam.

Essentially, as Astri pointed out, the mode of exodus rather than the reasons for flight had become the criterion for determining refugee status. The backlash against a system that made the perils of flight, perils played up in media reports, the grounds for determining refugee status, had begun. By negotiating changes in the push factors, by allowing sponsored relatives to emigrate directly from Vietnam, by classifying Laotians and Cambodians now as economic migrants, and, most of all, by closing down selection and processing facilities in countries like Thailand, a process discouraging a further exodus had begun to be put in place.

One of the effects of this new policy was that countries of first asylum, fearing they would be left with residuals, now pushed back as well by preventing Cambodians and Laotians from crossing the border and sending them back when they did, justifying such measures by the decision of the United States, seemingly supported by other Western governments, to classify these people now as irregular migrants rather than refugees. These steps further inhibited the new flows and began to slow down the exodus significantly.

Thus, the predictions of the American State Department special panel mentioned above that the United States must be prepared for continuing and possibly increased flows of refugees from Indochina, particularly Vietnam, turned out to be not so much a prediction as a rationalization and motivation for a policy shift which, when implemented, prevented the prediction from being realized. In foreseeing ”a long-term continuation of the exodus of boat people from Vietnam” and ”the potential for increased land refugee flows from Laos and Cambodia, in view of worsening conditions of life and the threat of widening hostilities,” in effect, these worsening conditions became the rationale for beginning to close the door to Indochinese refugees. The Panel confirmed that the widespread belief that the new refugees were different than those who fled between 1975 and 1980 was accurate. As Senator Walter D. Huddleston (D. Kentucky) charged, ”the great majority of those claiming to be political refugees are, in reality, economic refugees.” He went further and accused State Department employees of actually recruiting refugees to fill quotas set by Congress.

The motivation for these shifts, in addition to the perception that these new flows consisted of economic migrants rather than refugees, included a fear that these new migrants would be more difficult to settle because they lacked any ties with Americans dating back to the war in Indochina and also had no family connections in the U.S., hence the exemption for Vietnam and the introduction of the Orderly Departure Program. There had also been a backlash in North America as the recession of the early eighties enhanced the voices of those who complained that the so-called refugees were putting an additional drag on the welfare system when dollars were in desperate short supply to take care of the increasing numbers thrown out of work and that had been added to the welfare rolls. Further, there was the sense that the United States had fulfilled its obligations connected with the Vietnam War and its citizens felt that it was being left with a disproportionate share of the problem. The complainants about burden sharing cited the fact that the U.S. had resettled about 50% of the Indochinese exodus, eventually 504,000 of the final total of about 1,060,000.

At the time the Panel report was published, Lao, Hmong and Khmer flows of migrants had begun to decline significantly, but Vietnamese refugees continued their exodus at a rate of 8,400 per month. As predicted, as the economic situation became worse in Vietnam, the monthly exodus stopped declining and began to get worse again in 1987. For seven years, resettlement opportunities had more than offset the new flows into the camps. In 1987 this was no longer the case as numbers in camps in Hong Kong and Thailand once again began to increase.  When 18,000 Boat People arrived in Hong Kong by mid-year of 1988, the Hong Kong authorities decided on 15 June that henceforth Indochinese refugees would be placed in closed camps – actually the skeletal structures of high rise buildings – and would no longer be allowed to leave the camps for irregular labour on the job market. Further, the educational and other programs previously offered to the refugees were halted.

An international refugee conference was held in Geneva in 1989 to deal with the new version of the Indochinese exodus that was no longer characterized as a refugee crisis. Henceforth, each so-called refugee was to be subjected to an individual screening to determine whether he or she qualified as a Convention Refugee. The migrants were no longer to be treated as humanitarian refugees. They would have to satisfy the much stricter definition and prove that they had a well-founded fear of persecution because they were members of a group targeted by the government and subjected to human rights abuses. The new Comprehensive Plan of Action entailed a program of “:forcibly” returning refugees to their home country while calling the return voluntary.

In 1989, 70,000 Indochinese had fled their countries of origin, many after the cut-off date of 14 March 1989 when the repatriation program became applicable. By 1992, that number had dropped precipitously to 41. The Indochinese refugee crisis had ended in a whimper, but the program of resettlement continued using the Orderly Departure Program for relatives of those who had been resettled, for mixed-race children whose fathers had been American soldiers and for former inmates of re-education camps. In the post-1989 era, Vietnam promised not to send any of the returned migrants to re-education camps.  Westerners, particularly those deeply suspicious of the government of Vietnam, traveled to that country to observe whether Vietnam was keeping its commitments. They confirmed that Vietnam was indeed being true to its word. When such confirmations were received, the conscience of returning those who still chose to leave, now deemed to be illegal economic migrants, was totally eased.

Between 1975 and 1997, 750,000 Indochinese refugees had been resettled abroad, over half in the U.S., in addition to those who had been resettled in China. Canada took approximately 100,000, a disproportionate share. A further 900,000 had been resettled under the Orderly Departure Program, many of those in Canada. Over 100,000 had been repatriated. As part of a commitment by Norway, Canada and the U.S. to deal with 200 remainders, the arrival in 2015 of a small coterie of 17 Vietnamese refugees in Canada who had been in camps for 18-25 years marked the definitive end of the program.

The story of the Indochinese refugee crisis was, on the one hand, a narrative of desperate people fleeing a mixture of economic desperation, prejudice and persecution. That story continues with the flight of the Rohingya from Myammar, where they are targeted for persecution, and from Bangladesh, where the Rohingya have lost hope given their relegation to the bottom of the economic ladder. The picture of packed and unseaworthy boats, of boats being pushed back out to sea, of boats abandoned by the people smugglers once they have collected their money, fill the newspapers these days. No, that is not accurate. There are stories, but they no longer fill the newspapers. Otherwise, the situation bears very little difference with the Boat People crisis of the late seventies. Except what we hear as a response is the sound of silence.

There is another major difference. Operation Lifeline in Canada was constructed on a model of networking pioneered by the sixties generation in their protests for peace and racial and social justice. That networking, once on the margins of society, has now become a central motif of economic organization as some of the newest and largest economic enterprises specialize only in networking. Whether the company is a new form of providing a taxi service like Uber without any taxis, or social connections like Facebook without any milieus, or connecting consumers with producers or home and hotel owners with travelers, in a new system in which connectivity, rather than productivity and manufacturing, has become the core economic mechanism for the new age, we have still not figured out how to institutionalize and transfer the lesson learned from the connectivity between citizens in one world with humans without a state in another world that was pioneered in the late seventies. In this age of connectivity at the core of the economy, the system should be applicable to the crises of the present. We can accomplish the feat with consumer goods and services in a post-modern world but we are still unable to do so in linking the pre-modern and post-modern worlds.

E. M. Forster in A Passage to India, included one very memorable imperative, “Only connect.” We must learn how to establish and institutionalize connections, not only between providers and users in a new post-modern economy, but between post-modern and pre-modern societies. Perhaps if the state stood aside, new networks for resettlement of refugees could be established. While the state retained its determination to preserve a monopoly on coercive power, it could surrender its monopoly on the controls of entry and egress to a state by sharing that responsibility with its citizens. Real networking connections could be established between citizens of the World of Order and stateless people, and members of the World of Disorder. Perhaps if the selection of new citizens were allowed to be assumed by small groups of existing citizens linking up with those needing and asking and risking to come, subject only to a veto by state authorities, then the modern era of networking could be applied to humanitarianism for a new age.

As Tom Friedman wrote in The New York Times, we need to be able to connect people from the new World of Disorder and those who are privileged and belong to the World of Order. For the New World Order is not a unity but a deeply divided global polity split between Order and Disorder, between good, responsive and responsible governance and bad, unresponsive and irresponsible governments. Only if some form of networking is established will we be able to deal with the current total of 50 million displaced in the world.

Canada’s Inhumanitarian Record Part 1 on The Indo-Chinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program

Canada’s Inhumanitarian Record

Part 1 on The Indochinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program


Howard Adelman

This is the first of a series of blogs on the Indochinese refugee movement in which private sponsorship became a major force and with which I had become deeply involved in the foundation and development of Operation Lifeline. On the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I have been treated royally by the Vietnamese community and presented with awards. Many memories have been brought to the surface. In another time and place I will deal with those direct experiences and invite readers to share their memories and reflections with me. This series of blogs has another purpose and will form part of a published academic paper. Feedback, comments and criticisms of the blogs would be most welcome.

The series will focus on a description, analysis and explanation of the rise of the private sponsorship movement in the late seventies and early eighties that was so essential to both the numbers and success of the resettlement of Indochinese refugees in Canada. In the Private Sponsorship Refugee (PSP) program of the Canadian government, Canada Immigration and Citizenship (CIC) facilitates the arrival of the refugees into Canada while sponsors provide care, lodging, settlement assistance and financial support. In the first thirty years of the program, almost 200,000 refugees and persons in refugee-like situations were resettled in Canada of which the Indochinese refugee resettlement constituted by far the single largest portion of the PSP program. While at the height of the Indochinese refugee movement, 6,000 were being resettled per month, in the twenty-first century that number has ranged from 230-330 per month (2,800 to 4,000 annually).

The blogs are less concerned with formulation of the policies, their precise expression at different stages and the role the private sector played in the successful integration of those refugees, about which I have written before (see, for example, Howard Adelman (1982) Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, Regina: L.A. Weigl Associates), but rather about the social and political context. The paper will analyze the global situation and the spirit or “geist” of the times in Canada, how that was expressed through religious institutions, the government, media and at the grass roots of society, and how that spirit allowed all sectors to come together to produce such a unique and extraordinary outcome.

Since the purpose of these blogs is not to offer a historical account of the rise of the refugee sponsorship movement, but rather to paint an in-depth cultural, social and political portrait of the times, I will be writing history both forwards and backwards at the same time, but not much about the forward developments to the emergence of the sponsorship movement, but forward from that emergence to the present to examine how much has changed. Further, based on a few contemporary focus groups and a more extensive social survey, and in the face of the enormous current refugee crisis, especially that of the Syrian refugees, these blogs will attempt to analyze why there has not been (and there is highly unlikely to be), a recurrence of such a large private sponsorship movement (as distinct from a number of sponsorships) in the present. I wish it were not so and I will continue to try to make it not so, but the analysis leads to the conclusion that such efforts will largely be quixotic. I begin by setting the stage of traveling backwards in time with “Now,” with current Canadian attitudes and approaches, contemporary Canadian policy and the regional and global refugee crisis.

Though not as consistent or repetitious as in the Boat People crisis of 1979, the media in the spring of 2015 has been filled with stories of boat people. Though there have been no stories of pirates preying on the refugees or of a plethora of rapes, the narratives of unscrupulous human smugglers, of unseaworthy and overloaded boats and of large numbers of drowned refugees have filled the news wires and the internet. In one single weekend alone at the beginning of May, the Italian coast guard assisted by French vessels rescued more than 6,800 refugees. In seven small wooden boats and nine dinghies that normally hold a maximum of 20 persons each (maximum 320 in total), there were 3,690 refugees rescued in one day on 2 May.

In 2014, over 170,000 refugees who risked the crossing from Africa to Europe were rescued.  In the first three days of May this year, the numbers rescued are already half of the number rescued in the whole of May last year. In April, an estimated 1,200 drowned, 800 in one incident that received worldwide publicity. In November of 2014, Italy ended its Mare Nostrum Mission on the argument that rescues promoted increased smuggling. The result, far more migrants drowned and still the flow kept increasing. Risk at sea is not a sufficient deterrent. Europe then launched Triton to rescue the migrants.

Canada, unlike Europe, does not have wave after wave of migrants trying to reach Canadian shores by sea. Yet our record of resettlement of refugees recently has been dismal. An op-ed published this past spring by Geraldine Sadoway and Andrew Brouwer (S&B), two prominent immigration lawyers in Toronto, began with a depiction of Canadian self-perception as a generous and humanitarian people and noted how Canada in 1986 was the only country ever to have been awarded the Nansen Medal – actually the only people, for the award had been given not to the state but to the people of Canada as a whole. Though Canada’s work on behalf of resettling Indochinese refugees was undoubtedly a catalyst in winning the award, formally the award was presented to “The People of Canada, in recognition of their essential and constant contribution (my italics) to the cause of refugees within their country and around the world. Canada is a leading contributor to international humanitarian and refugee aid programmes. Canada has, from the beginning, supported international efforts on behalf of refugees. It has one of the best records for resettlement of refugees and is a leading UNHCR donor.”

S&B challenged the view that the humanitarian streak had been essential or constant in Canadian history. Rather, it has been sporadic and intermittent, with a strong history of bias against refugees. Humanitarianism had not been much in evidence at all in dealing with Jewish refugees prior to WW II, but even at the height of the Indochinese refugee movement, as S&B pointed out, the Canadian government imposed a visa requirement on Chileans fleeing the repressive regime of General Pinochet that had come to power in a coup in September 1973.

What S&B leave out, and what Eva Salinas documented in a Globe and Mail story forty years later on 8 September 2013, is how Canadian embassy officials in Santiago, particularly the First Secretary Marc Dolgin, with the assistance of his colleague David Adam, helped Chileans, one in particular, Claudio Duran, a colleague of mine hired into the philosophy department of Atkinson College at York University as soon as he arrived in Canada when I was chair. He had initially obtained sanctuary in the Canadian embassy. Canada relatively soon after the coup designated Chileans as a special class of designated immigrants who could enter Canada under very relaxed immigration criteria, the same criteria subsequently applied to the Indochinese refugees.

This was in spite of the fact that Andrew Ross, the Canadian ambassador, who was stuck abroad at the time of the coup and was not in Santiago, supported the new Pinochet regime and called Chilean leftists “riff-raff” and rationalized their killing as “abhorrent but understandable.” Perhaps that is one reason why Canada between 1973 and 1978 only took in 13,000 of the 200,000 Chilean refugees who fled the country. However, in that case, without the pressure of the mainline churches, without the pressure from opposition New Democrats like Andrew Brewin and another colleague, John Harney who was then an NDP member of parliament, without the November report of a highly respected External Affairs bureaucrat, Geoffrey Pearson, contradicting the views of Andrew Ross, without the leadership of the then Minister of Immigration, Bob Andras, without a Liberal Cabinet that quickly discredited the views of Ross, and without widespread support by the media, the Canadian program “Special Movement Chile” would never have achieved “lift-off”.

As John Foster and Bob Carty noted in their 12 September 2013 on-line article, the Canadian response to the Chilean crisis was “a contradictory mix of official resistance, personal courage and citizen activism energized by Canadian churches with a persistence that outpaced government refusals.” On the other hand, the government of the day became convinced of the need to act. They did so using the full range of tools at its disposal: the refugee program for those who got out of Chile, the oppressed minority policy for people still in Chile, and a special program for  political prisoners that managed to spring something like 200 political prisoners and their families and bring them to Canada. The  last two morphed into the Latina American Designated Class  as soon as the 1976 Immigration Act made that tool available. When the Indochinese refugee program began in 1978, some cabinet ministers expressed the fear that engagement with the Indochinese refugees might be at the cost of the Chileans.

This has been the record, inconsistency rather than constancy, contradictory rather than essential behaviour. Although the 1986 Nansen Award was for the people of Canada, and was presented to Governor General Sauvé by the High Commissioner of the United Nations, on the dais were the Honourable Flora MacDonald, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Gerry Weiner, then Minister of State (Immigration) and Michael Schelew, then President of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) that had worked most assiduously primarily on the asylum side of the refugee issue, though his cousin, Wendy Schelew, became the senior official in charge of Operation Lifeline. There were no representatives of the Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church or Operation Lifeline that had led in the private sponsorship of refugees, though Michael Schelew personally had been active in private sponsorship and the CCR strongly supported refugee resettlement whatever the route into Canada.

What S&B highlighted was that, even during the height of the Indochinese humanitarian impulse, the Canadian government (along with its western allies) had begun to put in place a system of visa controls, penalties on carriers that transport undocumented foreigners, a system that pushed border controls to embarkation points and not just at entry points, eventually closed the Canadian-U.S. border to the entry of refugee claimants without family links under the Safe Third Country Agreement, put so many refugee claimants in holding centres, then, even if they gained refugee status, prevented them from sponsoring other members of their family because they used an “irregular” route to get to Canada, and even included among those subject to punishment not only or even primarily the people traffickers and smugglers, but those who help refugees reach and stay in Canada and do so for strictly humanitarian reasons.