Navigating winter snow storms, planes full of private and government-sponsored Syrians continue to arrive at Canadian airports thanks to the UNHCR’s resettlement programme. According to its pledge, the Canadian government hopes to have resettled 25,000 refugees from Syria by the end of February, and 50,000 more by the end of the year – matching its intake of Southeast Asian refugees in 1979.
Per capita, this pledge is enormous compared to those from the US, Australia and the UK at 10,000, 12,000 and 4,000 respectively. In the last six months, all four countries have made moves to scale up their resettlement of Syrians, but Canada, under the new liberal government of Justin Trudeau, is racing ahead.
However, according to Dr Will Jones, departmental lecturer at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Study Centre, resettlement pledges are doing little to dent the refugee crisis overall. ‘While the pledges from Australia, the USA, the UK and Canada are increasing, in most cases they are headline figures and do little in the way of implementation,’ he says. ‘There is little progress towards an organised, large-scale resettlement and the selective nature of screening Syrians slows down its impact. The German process is much simpler – just turn up. Of course, geography plays a big part in that being a possibility.’
“Historically, large-scale resettlement is definitely something the West can and has done”
The other effect of the selective nature of resettlement, Jones says, is in the kind of language used for types of Syrians that are welcome: ‘There is a lot of good refugee/bad refugee talk.’ This is true of Canada, which initially was not going to resettle any single men. Then, following outrage from gay groups, the government announced it would take in gay, single men.
Resettlement programs have a long way to go to match up to the generosity of Germany, which in 2015 accepted 400,000 Syrian asylum seekers. ‘Historically, large-scale resettlement is definitely something the West can and has done,’ says Jones. ‘For example, Canada, Australia, the US and the EU collectively resettled 2.5 million Southeast Asians in the 1970s and 80s. However, there would need to be the political will for a more chaotic, larger-scale resettlement to take place again.’
This article was published in the February 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.