Causes and Consequences of Canada's Resettlement of Syrian Refugees

By McMurdo, Anne-Marie Bélanger | Forced Migration Review, May 2016 | Go to article overview

Causes and Consequences of Canada's Resettlement of Syrian Refugees


McMurdo, Anne-Marie Bélanger, Forced Migration Review


Canada's pledge in late 2015 to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement came at a time when certain other countries were considering measures such as confiscating assets of refugees, registering Muslim refugees entering their country or closing borders to refugees altogether. Why did Canada buck a growing trend and what have been the consequences?

A few factors can help explain Canada's action. First, Canadian public response to the Syrian refugee crisis had gathered a significant amount of momentum over time. This was further reinforced by the news of the death of three-year old Ayan Kurdi, a Syrian child who drowned while travelling by boat from Turkey to Greece with his family - a family who, it emerged, had previously been refused resettlement to Canada. This event marked a tipping point, strengthening the public outcry for the Canadian government to change its previously more restrictive policies towards refugees.

Secondly, national elections in Canada in October 2015 proved timely. During the pre-election phase, prime ministerial candidates responded to public opinion in favour of increased resettlement by each offering their own pledge to resettle Syrian refugees.

Thirdly, citizens wanted their government to match the rhetoric of Canadian identity as compassionate, actively engaged in the international community and open to newcomers. It was no surprise that citizens pushed the government to make an effort towards resettling Syrians, given the long-standing willingness of many citizens to be actively engaged in sponsoring refugees themselves. Civil society in Canada plays a significant role in resettlement as individuals can resettle refugees through what is known as the 'Group of Five' scheme, whereby five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents apply to sponsor refugees to come to Canada and take responsibility for supporting them after arrival.1

Resources for resettlement

Resettlement is a form of responsibility sharing and a recognition of international cooperation between countries. However, there is no legal imperative to resettle refugees, and countries choose to accept refugees voluntarily and may set their own quotas and criteria. Canada's decision to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees2 was, in this sense, its own choice.

The newly elected government's commitment to resettle Syrians was primarily driven by the momentum of the elections, and later by the need to demonstrate the new government's capacity to swiftly implement promises. In fact, once the government had been voted into power in October 2015, it was not clear how it would fulfil its promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. As a result, deadlines had to be pushed back from the end of 2015 to the end of February 2016. Since being elected, the federal government has made huge efforts to meet its target of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees but the focus on quantity to be resettled may have been at the expense of the quality of settlement services provided.

Disappointingly, settlement services in Canada have not yet received the same support from the government as was offered in physically resettling the refugees to Canada. In other words, with such a huge and rapid influx of refugees, settlement services have been stretched beyond capacity, without sufficient resources to adequately address the refugees' needs, or the time to invest in additional fundraising.

After repeated cuts in the settlement sector by the previous government, 'newcomer' services - those engaged in welcoming and assisting resettled refugees and other immigrants - have been struggling to respond to the increase in arrivals. As a result of the scale of arrivals, enrolling the refugees in language classes and/or schools and allocating housing, to name but a few services, have proved challenging. For example, refugees have been staying in temporary accommodation for weeks longer than usual.3 In response, the private sector and civil society have played an extremely active role in responding to the needs of the thousands of Syrian arrivals to fill this gap. …

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