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Refugee crisis: Canada “could do a lot more” expert says

“During the Bosnian and Kosovo crises, we were much faster and better at helping displaced persons overseas”

The fleeing Syrians and Iraqis have been “besieged by seemingly endless war, suffering, and fear” says Kislenko (photo above, Syrian Refugees in Vienna, by Josh Zakary via flickr)

As tens of thousands of refugees continue a perilous journey across Europe, and images of their desperation flood our screens, the world seems no better prepared to handle the crisis than at its onset.

Arne Kislenko is an international relations instructor at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and Munk School of Global Affairs. He also serves as an associate professor of history at Ryerson University.

U of T News spoke to Kislenko about the almost unprecedented human migration from south to north and why the world seems so ill-equipped to meet it.


Are people making their way to Europe across the Mediterranean refugees or migrants?
Personally, I think both terms apply. From the news I have read and the images I have seen, many people appear to be coming from Syria and Iraq and very likely have legitimate grounds to be designated as refugees under all legal and practical uses of the word. However, some are clearly from other areas of the world where it’s not quite so clear the term applies. To me, those people would be better classified as migrants.

Those deemed refugees under national and international law have demonstrated a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Although no nation or international agency may have officially deemed each Syrian fleeing the madness there a refugee, the “well-founded” part of their reasons for fleeing are very likely to make them bona fide refugees under any reasonable consideration.

The same, however, cannot be said for Pakistanis or other nationals also pressing into Europe. While general conditions in any particular country might be dreadful by our standards and inclinations, it is not automatic that everyone coming from any country who says they are a refugee actually meets the definition established by the 1951 Conventions, national policies, or law. In these instances, migrants or refugee claimants might be a more accurate term.

Is there a connection between the Arab spring and this current migrant wave, the biggest since the Second World War? 
As an historian, I am really nervous about drawing absolute connections between something like the Arab Spring and the current crisis. It seems obvious, but we need some distance from the timeline – and far better research and analysis of specifics – to know for sure.

We could certainly speculate seriously about how the decline of absolutist regimes in the Arab world and the subsequent conflicts that have arisen in many have contributed to the mass exodus. But at its core I think most people fleeing Syria and Iraq are simply besieged by seemingly endless war, suffering, and fear, the architects of which are rather meaningless.

Whether running from Assad, ISIS, or the prospect of military action by the West and its partners, people want out – especially after so long without hope.

Why is a collective response by the 28 EU members lacking?
The EU has seldom acted in union, despite the name. Countries like Hungary are terrified about the costs incurred in settling so many refugees and migrants. They simply do not have the money or resources to cope. Some people there, no doubt, are also worried about the challenges (real and imagined) that such a wave will present to their nation and its culture or cultures. Xenophobia and racism are alive and well in some parts of Europe. So is fear of the unknown.

Also, at the risk of sounding terribly elitist or condescending, some European states simply do not share the more liberal, humanitarian considerations of other, more developed countries. Leaders interested in maintaining power are playing to the values of more “local” constituencies, where the “lofty” notions of international humanitarianism might not appeal.

Beyond Europe, what is the responsibility of the rest of world toward this humanitarian catastrophe? What about the US, in particular, considering its military involvement in the region? 
I think other countries need to do far more to help alleviate the suffering of those obviously and legitimately fleeing the crises in Syria and Iraq. That includes Canada and other international observers. We should be working with Turkey and, if needed, European states on the migration path to offer assistance: immediate – in the sense of food, water, clothing, health care, accommodation – and also longer term, in the sense of resettlement programs, etc.

It is a daunting challenge logistically and in terms of cost, but there is no viable alternative. And the US needs to better understand that it bears significant responsibility for the collapse of Iraq which, no doubt, contributed to this problem. It should be spearheading the international effort, in my view.

What role can Canada play in alleviating the crisis?
Canada has legal and moral obligations to do much more than it has done so far. Frankly, our record helping Syrian refugees in this crisis is an embarrassment. As a former officer, and now as an academic deeply involved in international security matters, I understand the government’s fixation on screening those being resettled. We need to make sure that Assad regime officials, ISIS, and other terrorist or criminal organizations don’t manage to infiltrate our country through the exodus.

However, we could do a lot more to alleviate immediate needs, and expedite the resettlement process. During the Bosnian and Kosovo crises, we were much faster and better at helping displaced persons overseas. I don’t think we have done anything like that here.

I agree with the general notion that we also need to stand firm against ISIS and, in principle at least, the Assad regime – so I am not one to say our foreign policy is so fundamentally flawed. However, with respect to actually helping those in clear dire need, we have failed rather dismally.