National Column: Toughest part of Syrian resettlement still ahead

by Tim Harper – Toronto Star

Much of the political and national conversation on the Trudeau government’s ambitious Syrian refugee program has revolved around targets and timelines. But that has obscured a larger truth.

As the country’s 10,000th Syrian refugee arrives in Canada this week, the toughest part of this project for the Liberal government lies ahead.

For the first time, government-sponsored refugees have topped the numbers of privately sponsored refugees, and another 15,000 displaced Syrians – a mix of both programs – will arrive by the end of February.

Military bases are standing by to potentially house government-sponsored refugees in the dead of a Canadian winter, and this is a much more vulnerable, at-risk group than those that have the privately sponsored support system awaiting their arrival.

This country, because of geography, some prudent planning despite the rush and the ability to pick and choose its new arrivals, can legitimately look on our effort with pride. We are now standing virtually alone in not having to face down some type of refugee backlash.

But as their numbers swell, it will not take much to spark one. There can be no perception that housing, schooling or job queues are jumped, and the resettlement effort has to continue relatively seamlessly so that anxieties are not heightened on either side. There are those who want this government project to fail, and they are lurking, on social media and email inboxes, waiting with matches to ignite that spark.

Canadians have contributed to winter clothing drives and have welcomed refugees into their homes. It has taken on the trappings of a national project.

But European countries, without that ability to pick-and-choose, have been dealing with a massive tide of migrants with no end in sight. According to the International Organization for Migration, 1,700 migrants have arrived by sea in Europe each day so far in 2016.

In Germany, Angela Merkel’s government is changing laws to make it easier to deport foreign nationals, including asylum seekers, in the wake of a massive number of assaults and sexual assaults of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.

More than 500 criminal complaints have been filed, 40 per cent of them for sexual assault. All the suspects identified so far are immigrants, but they are not necessarily part of a wave of 1.1 million migrants who flooded into Germany last year.

That doesn’t seem to matter. The damage is done. Immigrants were beaten in a demonstration Sunday night in Germany, and Merkel has admitted Europe has lost control of the refugee crisis.

A similar case of mass sexual assault by immigrants has come to light in Sweden. In the U.S., fears and a backlash have been stoked by candidates for the Republican presidential nomination and state governors only too happy to piggyback on a wave of xenophobia.

There is no direct line to be drawn between those incidents and attitudes in Canada, but opponents of the influx will be only too happy to draw one if given half a chance.

The government must also be careful about the single-minded focus on the refugee program because an abuse of an immigration sponsorship program appears to have taken place right under its nose.

Reports Tuesday that some applicants seeking to sponsor parents or grandparents to this country paid up to $400 to have couriers ensure they’re at the front of the line of a program in which demand far outstrips space are causing concern.

The common theme is fairness – for those here seeking reunification and for Canadians who are awaiting services that should not go first to refugees.

Government officials acknowledge the refugee intake has moved into a different phase, but they maintain the challenge is the resettlement effort, not the makeup of the more vulnerable government-sponsored refugees.


If they are not moved to proper shelter quickly, they could react unfavourably, as anyone would. Without a support network waiting, their language skills here could falter.

The government also knows there is a waiting list for proper housing for those already in the country. Their needs cannot be overtaken by refugee needs.

When there is an incident, as there was over the weekend in Vancouver, government ministers properly and quickly condemned a pepper spray attack on refugees.

By moving heterosexual single men down the list of refugees to be accepted, the Liberals may have unwittingly made such assaults less likely here. Vulnerability, not cultural concerns, led to that prioritization.

The first point about Canadian society prospective arrivals are told is that men and women are equal.

“They have the same rights and are treated with the same level of respect,” the immigration website says.

Immigration Minister John McCallum says that once the taps are turned on, the numbers of refugees heading into this country will flow.

That increased flow must lead to increased vigilance. This country has shown much compassion and goodwill to those arriving on our shores, but that compassion will inevitably get a tougher test.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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