In the face of Brexit, growing support for Front National in France, the breakdown of rule of law in Sweden (the country that has accepted the most refugees per capita), and now a looming Trump presidency, left-leaning individuals around the world have applauded and even idolised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for welcoming Syrian and Iraqi refugees with open arms. The Canadian head of government has become somewhat of a celebrity. According to a recent poll, he is the most popular of the last seven Canadian prime ministers to be elected, with 57 per cent of respondents holding a positive impression of him. It is not hard to see why; the Prime Minister has been noted for his dreamy looks, endearing photo ops, and appeals to the nation’s diversity. It appears Trudeau can do no wrong. But perhaps the Prime Minister’s personal following has shielded him, and his policies, from justified criticism. While Trudeau’s immigration policy should be viewed as mainly positive, there are undeniable issues with properly and permanently resettling Syrian and Iraqi refugees who have landed in Canada, which have often been overlooked. Furthermore, the Canadian resettlement program has largely been considered a success because of the failures of other governments to accept refugees, such as in the United Kingdom, and in light of recent violence, such as in Sweden, but Canada faces a fundamentally different situation from these European nations and thus cannot be judged according to the same standards.
Throughout his campaign for office, Trudeau pledged to welcome 25,000 refugees before the end of 2015. This was extremely ambitious considering he only assumed power at the beginning of November 2015 and the proposed airlifts would take place over a period of only eight weeks. While Trudeau’s intentions have always been irrefutably noble, Canadian refugee settlement agencies and academics immediately criticised the proposed timeline as unrealistic and problematic given the capabilities of resettlement agencies at the time, and the time required for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to screen and refer refugees to the Canadian government.
It turns out these criticisms were legitimate. Not only were there considerable delays in airlifting refugees to Canada, but maybe more worryingly, the process of resettlement has been less than smooth. The estimated number of Syrian refugees that will be welcomed into Canada by the end of the year is 44,000.
But transporting refugees to Canada was the easy part. Many government-sponsored refugees lived in budget hotels for several weeks before finding permanent housing. It was not until May 2016 that the last refugee family moved out of the Toronto Plaza Hotel, which temporarily housed up to 600 refugees at a time, after living there for three months. Some refugees claimed they would rather return to their refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon than live in these hotels because they lack support services, a place for their children to play, and the ability to speak English.
Support services, including English language classes and mental health treatment, have been severely lacking in the Canadian resettlement program. Lucy Lam, a volunteer English language tutor for Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Vancouver, expressed her immense frustration with the refugee settlement agency she previously worked with because of its complete disorganisation. She explained that the refugee families spoke zero English so the resettlement agency hired several Arabic liaisons, only to continually lay them off so she would work with new translators every week. Furthermore, the lessons were chaotic because they took place in temporary housing, and she was forced to bring in her own books, magazines, and props to assist in her lessons. Ms. Lam eventually became so frustrated with the agency that she decided to privately tutor refugee families. The inability to provide English classes has been a key failing of Trudeau’s resettlement program. Without the ability to speak English, many refugees are unable to find jobs. The federal government currently gives each refugee the equivalent of welfare for one year, but after that, if they cannot find work, they end up on provincial welfare. It is unclear why the government has not made greater efforts to improve these services. Professor Hiebert from the University of British Columbia states he is disturbed that there is money dedicated to resettling Syrian refugees that has not yet been spent, even a full year after the resettlement program commenced.
Many of Trudeau’s supporters argue these are relatively minor problems compared to the violent attacks and breakdown of law and order in some European countries. While this may be true, it is important to remember that the Canadian government faces a completely different situation than these European nations. Canada is separated from Syria and Iraq by the Atlantic Ocean, so there are no asylum-seekers flooding its borders. Canada also has the benefit of receiving only officially registered refugees that are recommended by the UNHCR. Security is understandably a major concern in migrant-receiving countries, yet European countries have received millions of unverified asylum-seekers and do not have the luxury of receiving only migrants who have already undergone security screenings. It is unfair to compare the management of refugees in Canada to that of European countries.
Trudeau’s government has not been entirely successful in admitting and integrating refugees into society, despite popular belief, and it remains unclear how the government is working to improve the process. On 31 October, the Canadian government announced that beginning with the year 2017, it would introduce a higher baseline allowance of 300,000 immigrants into the country per year, and is even entertaining the idea of further increasing this figure to 450,000 in the future. However, it appears this increase is mainly for economic reasons and to offset Canada’s aging population, since the number of economic migrants will increase but the number of refugees admitted will actually be lowered from 55,800 to 40,000. Does this indicate that the government recognises the need for a more manageable timeline, or is this a bad sign for those seeking refuge in Canada? In July 2016 a Senate committee urged immediate action to provide better mental health services, quicker disbursement of child tax benefits, greater funding for language classes, the provision of child care to enable parents to attend these classes, and grants for transportation—rather than loans—to help refugees. Hopefully, the government will act on these recommendations. Ms. Lam comments that it took a long time but the families she tutors are finally receiving the services they need. While there is a lot to be cautiously optimistic about in Canada, individuals around the world should not let Prime Minister Trudeau’s charm and good looks distract from the real issues at hand.