Please Stop Bean-Counting Syrian refugees

For months, the international community has been clamouring to find an appropriate response to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence and terror in Syria. But much of the debate about what states can and should do has been framed as a ‘numbers game’, as a matter of the volume of refugees any given state accepts. In this article, a version of which was first published at Open Canada, I argue that our moral responsibility to refugees cannot solely be measured by the number we take in. The piece focuses on the current debate in Canada but, hopefully, will also resonate with readers in communities facing similar situations.

A Syrian man holds his son at a refugee camp (Photo: Muhammed Muheisen / Associated Press

A Syrian man holds his son at a refugee camp (Photo: Muhammed Muheisen / Associated Press

Numbers have power. They determine both politics and policies. We are comforted when we are told that hundreds of billions of dollars will go towards combating climate change — even if few know what that amount of money actually buys. We are shocked and appalled when we hear that 300,000 people, and counting, have perished during the Syrian civil war. We are concerned when confronted with the disparity in wealth and opportunity between the wealthiest one percent and the other 99 percent.

Numbers underpin the decisions we make, the ideas we propagate and the rationales we employ to support both. But numbers don’t always add up. And in some instances, they obfuscate more than they elucidate. The current debate over the acceptance of Syrian refugees to Canada is a case in point.

Since the harrowing images of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach captured the world’s attention, there has been a welcome, if belated, debate about what Canada can do to help the plight of refugees fleeing violence and atrocity in Syria. In part because this debate emerged so powerfully in the midst of last October’s federal election, politicians distilled it into a numbers game. The Conservatives, then under Stephen Harper, promised to bring in and settle 10,000 Syrian refugees by September 2016. The Liberals, led by now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, countered that they would accommodate 25,000 refugees from the region by the end of 2015. The question of who would promise to do the most for Syrian refugees thus became a matter of who would offer to accept the most Syrian refugees. But these are not one and the same.

The current Liberal government came under fire for being over-confident, perhaps even naive, in declaring that it could settle 25,000 refugees within three months of assuming power. Subsequently, it revised its target to 10,000 by Dec. 31, 2015, extending the deadline for 25,000 until March.

Now, well into the New Year, the government has reached approximately 25 percent of its target. Are they to blame? Have they failed? Some would certainly claim so. NDP MP Jenny Kwan declared that not only did Immigration Minister John McCallum “irrefutably fail to live up to the promise Liberals made to Canadians in the last election, but he even failed to meet his own lowered expectations.” In a recent op-ed, columnist John Ibbitson has added that, based on the numbers, “the Conservative goal is looking more realistic than what the Liberals promised.”

There is no doubt that the government should be held to account for the promises it makes and breaks. But basing our judgment of appropriate political and moral action to help Syrian refugees should not be a numbers game. The political challenge we face isn’t to ‘fit in’ as many refugees as the government promises in as short a period of time as possible. Bean-counting people and families fleeing terror cannot meet the moral test we are confronting. To do so misses the point: that what we need is a nation-wide conversation about how we can create and maintain a coherent, comprehensive and, above all, compassionate program that not only brings refugees, along with their immense energy and courage, into the country, but ensures that they are adequately supported once they arrive.

Such a program could also serve as an example for how to handle future refugee crises, or, better yet, lead into a debate around the effectiveness of Canada’s process on the whole, considering the many refugees worldwide who are waiting in camps or have been put on years-long waiting lists to be provided entry into Canada. Unless there is a declared global emergency or politically driven attention on their plight, those others are clearly not being served under our current system.

This is not the place to outline details for a more immediate program but it is clear that any discussion will have to take into consideration security concerns — legitimate or perceived — as well as the number of Syrian refugees the country is able to accept in coming years. It is certain that this type of analysis wasn’t done during the election; the promises of accepting various numbers of refugees reflected an attempt to gain votes rather than an independent and accurate account of what Canada was able to commit. Crucially, even once we’ve established — and reached — an appropriate saturation point, the government must still commit to help support refugee programs in states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey that are cumulatively hosting 4.8 million Syrian refugees, or 192 times the number Canada currently intends to accept.

Of course, there are many good numbers when it comes to the debate over Canada’s acceptance of Syrian refugees. Hundreds of articles have been written imploring the government to step up. Late last year, tens of thousands said they would visit Toronto’s Pearson Airport in order to welcome the first group of refugees coming to Canada — so many, in fact, that such welcoming events were cancelled.

But our obligation to Syrian refugees, and all refugees for that matter, is not itself a statistical one. Our job isn’t done, and we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back, the moment we’ve accepted 25,000 refugees — especially if they continue to pour out of Syria. Conversely, Canada hasn’t failed if it accepts 24,000 in the coming months, if it manages to support thousands more in the coming years. What is needed is a reframing of what it means to be empathetic and compassionate to Syrian refugees. That requires ditching any obsession with this numbers game and thinking deeply about how we can put forward sustainable policies and programs, here and abroad, that may provide destitute and devastated people with what we so often take for granted: a decent life.

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About Mark Kersten

Mark is a researcher, consultant and teacher based at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, Canada. His research focuses on the nexus of international criminal justice and conflict resolution. Specifically, Mark's work examines the politics of the International Criminal Court and the effects of its interventions on peace, justice and conflict processes.
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3 Responses to Please Stop Bean-Counting Syrian refugees

  1. kush says:

    As much as I appreciate this post I believe the writer should implore Canadians and their government to campaign and focus more on peaceful settlement of conflict in the region rather than preaching mere compassionate measure and further admission of refugees. My question is what will happen if or when Canada reached it breaking point? Otherwise a very good post.

  2. Pam says:

    I agree with Kush. The sectarian aspects of the Syrian culture would likely conflict with western culture. Working out a way to help these refugees to an area where they are able to find safety and cultural comfort would be a better solution. We need to have more open discussions about this. Thank you for your article.

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