As you recall, this spring marked the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. In 1912, some 1,514 people perished in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean. That is tragedy enough, but did you know that 468 of those 1,514 people drowned entirely needlessly? There were exactly 468 empty seats in the lifeboats launched from the Titanic.
In today’s refugee crisis, perhaps it is not so easy to count the avoidable deaths, but a clear analogy can be drawn, say observers on this issue. The wealthy countries of 2016 represent a lifeboat for forcibly displaced people. How many lives are lost every day, as a result of the failure of these countries to respond adequately to the current refugee crisis? Many nations have the capacity, but lack the leadership to accept and protect more refugees, leaving empty seats in the lifeboat. The developing world shoulders a disproportionate share of the responsibility to protect refugees and therefore, the wealthier states are called upon to do more.
Canada has been rightly commended for resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees between November 2015 and March 2016. This is an important accomplishment that will make a tremendous difference in the lives of these 25,000 new permanent residents of Canada. It will also enrich the lives of the thousands of Canadians who are contributing to the resettlement effort.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called Canada’s contribution “extraordinary,” compared to other nations. It is commendable not because of its magnitude in the global context: the UNHCR has estimated that in the current crisis, over 1,150,000 vulnerable refugees require resettlement. Canada has helped only 2% of those in urgent need right now. Neither is Canada’s resettlement effort extraordinary because of its magnitude at home: Canada hosts only about four refugees per 1,000 population. Compare this to the contribution of Lebanon, which hosts over 200 refugees per 1,000 population. In Lebanon, one in every four or five people is a refugee.
Our contribution is extraordinary because even as Canada sails to the rescue of these few, many other countries are rowing in the opposite direction. Although the United States of America historically has resettled about 85,000 refugees each year, the hurtful rhetoric currently being used in the presidential primaries prompts the question: how long will that policy last? The leadership of Canada is quite timely and clearly necessary.
With due recognition of the resettlement effort, Amnesty International has proposed a 2016 Human Rights Agenda for Canada, outlining several policy recommendations to protect the rights of refugees and migrants. Amnesty says it is also collaborating on a campaign called Refugees Welcome Here!, an initiative with the Canadian Council for Refugees. Take a look at three of the most important ways that the campaign partners are asserting that Canada can continue – and expand – its leadership on refugee protection: Reunite refugee families, recognize refugees, respecting non-discrimination principles, and resettle more refugees.
Together, Canadians and governments at all levels are working to ensure that there are no more empty seats left in lifeboats.
June 20th is World Refugee Day. Please join others in your community to advocate for refugee rights and celebrate the contributions of refugees to Canada. More information is available at www.amnesty.ca