August 24th, 2016

At a time of sorrow and despair for the EU, and with the refugee issue a core fault line in the Old Continent’s politics, the Canadian policy of privately sponsored refugees could offer a solution to building bridges of understanding among diverse communities

I arrived in Canada from Romania on July 31st, 2015. Two days later, a fierce political campaign, one of the longest in the history of Canadian federal elections, started. Adjusting to North America while becoming ever more aware of my European identity, I was struck, like many others across the world, by that iconic image of Alain Kurdi, the little child lying dead on a Greek beach. One may argue that the media decided to frame the Syrian refugee crisis by putting a face to the tragedy, in order to shift the public opinion on a phenomenon that had previously been portrayed more like a natural disaster than a human drama. Regardless, decision-makers and citizens have begun to take the issue more seriously and to demand action – action that was but a drop in an ocean of sorrow, but still something symbolic.

It turned out that the Kurdi family had ties in Canada and tried, unsuccessfully, to emigrate. It did not take a lot to ignite a campaign torn between a diffuse – but acute – thrust for change and genuine mistrust towards the potential successors of the Conservative government. According to its immigration system, Canada receives around 280,000 – 300,000 new immigrants annually (of which, for example, 28,622 were accepted based on refugee and humanitarian claims in 2014). Immigrants are granted permanent resident status (a clear difference from Europe), with the special case of Quebec which handles its own immigration system based on its inter-cultural model. Prior to the uproar in the international community and Canadian society, the Canadian government pledged to receive only 10,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

The Liberals, at that point only third in line to gain power, seized the opportunity and promised to bring 25,000 refugees by the end of the year. In their electoral strategy, this was bigger than the global refugee crisis. This was an electoral campaign which spoke to the perceived diminished prestige of the country in the world, with its decline in brokering agreements and peacekeeping, that had accompanied a shift from principled foreign policy to narrowly national interest. Not in the least, this was also about the changes brought about by the Conservative government in the refugee and immigration law with the introduction of the Designated Countries of Origin system, the focus on temporary work programs and additional administrative burdens for asylum claimants.

As shown by the news reports covering the new wunderkind of global politics, Justin Trudeau, the Liberals pulled it off, won the elections and turned the 25,000 Syrian refugee claim into the first test of the Cabinet. It took longer than December for the refugees to make Canada their new home but what captured headlines all over the world was, again, Justin Trudeau greeting the newcomers at the Toronto airport, smiling, shaking hands and giving toys to shy Syrian kids. Although, as experts and activists argue, much remains to be done to reform the Canadian immigration and refugee system, matching what is right to what is politically accepted, has put the actions of the Canadian government in clear contrast to what was and is happening in the EU.

As part of a Fellowship bringing together young leaders from 10 countries and 4 continents for one year, my colleagues and I decided to focus our collective project on understanding and addressing the complex issue of refugee rights and integration in Canada and Montreal. In addition to organising public dialogues and engaging experts, academics, and the community, we put forward a policy paper which dealt with how Canada can “do more and do better” in integrating its immigrants and refugees. Having presented the document in front of federal ministers, MPs, and civil society representatives, we became part of the incremental process of policy development.

But the key learning element came from a discussion with John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship under Trudeau. Half joking, the Minister told us that he has a problem no other immigration Minister has had to deal with: the institution is almost overwhelmed by the number of Canadian citizens who want to privately sponsor refugees. This is one fundamental policy which deserves more attention, especially in Europe’s poisoned social climate.

Complementing the Government-Assisted Refugee Program, the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program allows regular citizens to provide refugees with financial and emotional support for the duration of the sponsorship (usually for one year). The benefits go beyond the thousands of refugees privately sponsored every year (4,560 in 2014) and are directly related to putting in place the conditions for successful integration and enhancing multiculturalism.

Crossing the Atlantic, it is neither hard nor pleasant to observe the outline of the debate concerning immigrants and refugees. In the United Kingdom, immigration was one of the drivers of the Leave vote. In France, the never ending string of terrorist attacks caused the electoral support of the National Front to balloon and highlighted the ignored realities of failed integration, home grown terrorism, racism and islamophobia. In Germany, Merkel’s “refugees welcome” policy is mocked and seen as the most likely cause of her political downfall. The recent attacks, some involving refugees, are not helping at all.

In Eastern Europe, the EU relocation scheme was openly rejected by various member states; the discourse reached a new low with the claim that refugees are bringing in epidemics. More than that, Hungary is preparing to organise a referendum against accepting refugees and use the results to boost Orban’s bellicose attitude towards Brussels. With economic and social problems aligning for a perfect storm, the top-down approach of the few human rights-driven European governments is showing its limits. At the same time, sceptics and populists are making electoral gains and persuading increasingly large swaths of the population that refugees and immigrants are a source of social and economic troubles, of radicalism, terrorism, and of incompatible cultural values.

While political leaders and decision-makers can inspire through principled discourse and actions, ignoring the active and positive role citizens can play in correcting the situation is plainly wrong. Instead of treating the voters of anti-immigration parties like their leaders, their concerns have to be openly debated in society-wide conversations, not ignored. Indeed outward-looking citizens have to be offered the opportunity to reshape the national narrative.

This is where the Canadian policy of privately-sponsored refugees can come in handy. Of course, relative to the European context, it is hard to draw parallels with a country favoured by geography and whose 25,000 Syrian refugees cannot compare to the million Germany took in last year. This sense of realism was shared by the Canadian authorities which we met. But the lessons Canada has learned should be given a chance in Europe, if not because they are a step in the right direction, then at least because these lessons may help overcome the current inaction.

Europe can only survive by enforcing its values and principles, its respect for human rights, solidarity and openness. By creating the framework for unmediated bonds between refugees and host population, with the state institutions acting as facilitators, we can take that first step to becoming a great society which brews integration, not ghettos and frustration. The accumulation of positive stories is what we lack today and such narratives could provide a lifeline for those politicians silenced or overwhelmed by the politics of fear haunting today’s EU.

Introducing privately-sponsored refugee programs in the main countries of the European Union has the potential to foster integration and to prevent further youth radicalisation – to show a different path and to spark a long overdue debate.

At a time of sorrow and despair, the EU should pause and reflect and not give in to isolationist, nativist and doom-driven policies. With the refugee issue a core fault line in Old Continent’s politics, enlightened political leaders and decision-makers should empower citizens to engage and act on behalf of inclusion and multiculturalism. The Canadian policy in this regard worked and presents itself as a beacon of hope. Why not bring it to the political leaders of Europe and give it a chance?

Article originally published in the European Business Review.

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