GUEST VOICE: The time to act on the crisis is now

Syrian people in refugee camp in Suruc

Images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed ashore evoke a special resonance for Jews. We know all too well the horrors of persecution and being shunned by the world. That is why Canadian Jewry has always been at the forefront of refugee protection. We are proud that Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) has stepped up to the plate and synagogues across Canada are beginning the process of submitting private sponsorships for Syrians. 

Last year, the Jewish Refugee Action Network (JRAN) and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) joined many faith and human rights groups in calling upon the government to create special measures for Syrian refugees. Yet the government did nothing for the Syrian Canadians staggering under the lengthy processing delays for family reunification applications, sticking instead with its modest plan to resettle 10,000 Syrians over three years.  

Over the past few weeks there have been a range of numbers introduced by the government to justify its approach to the refugee crisis. Here is the number that matters: zero. 

Zero is the number of new refugee resettlement places created by Canada since the Syrian civil war began. All we have done is require that many of Canada’s existing resettlement spots shift from other countries toward Syrians. That’s bad news if you’re fleeing violence in Congo, Sudan or Eritrea. 

Faced with five million Syrian refugees and 20 million refugees globally, our government’s response has been to play tricks with statistics and claim credit for things it has not done. 

While mayors, premiers, former cabinet ministers, prime ministers, faith groups, opposition parties and the majority of Canadians clamour for the current government to muster the political will to act, zero is also the number of times that the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has spoken up. 

Recently, CIJA missed yet another opportunity to act when it dispatched a memo to its members listing web links for private sponsorships, mentioning its plan to donate funds to the Kingdom of Jordan for refugee relief work, and playing number games with Canada’s refugee resettlement program for Syrians and Iraqis. 

CIJA’s failure to call for meaningful government action for Syrian refugees compounds its near silence on the government’s recent cuts to refugee health care and the discriminatory inland refugee determination process, even after both enactments were struck down by the Federal Court.  

Is the government right to severely restrict the numbers of refugees given the security threats of jihadists? Once upon a time, our governments brandished the security threat of “trouble-making Jews” as an excuse for its anti-Semitic refugee policies. Today, security experts tell us that we simply need to put in place the resources to conduct quick but robust security screening. 

We’ve accomplished this in every major humanitarian crisis since World War II. Only a lack of political will prevents us from succeeding again. 

A crisis as large as what happened to the little boy in that photo requires a willingness to speak truth to power and put partisanship aside. It is not too late for CIJA to remember that “we were all slaves in Egypt.” And it’s not too late for the government to recall that we are all “our brother’s keepers.” 

The time to act is now. 

Mitchell Goldberg is president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld is founder and executive member of the Jewish Refugee Action Network. 

Click here for a different opinion on the Syrian refugee crisis, penned by Donald Carr, chairman emeritus of The CJN