A Refugee Crisis

Reuel S. Amdur March/April 2019
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Worldwide, there are currently more than 65 million refugees or people displaced in their own countries.The reasons vary—persecution, war and conflict, and weather.Climate change is becoming an important factor undermining traditional agricultural pursuits and driving people from the global south to seek a new life in the north.

Here in North America we are not faced with the same massive influx that Europe experiences. The Atlantic Ocean is a more effective barrier than the Mediterranean Sea.Yet some refugees manage to get across in spite of airline screening.In the United States so-called refugee convoys have recently raised the specter of mass invasions. Only a few hundred refugees have arrived in Canada by boat in past decades: Sikhs from India arriving in Nova Scotia in 1987, and a boatload of mainly Chinese landing in British Columbia in 1999.Of the 1999 arrivals, 24 out of 577 claimants were found to be legitimate refugees.

While not getting anything like the more than 1 million admitted to Germany, the United States and Canada still receive significant numbers of people seeking refuge from Latin America and the Caribbean troubles.Mexico and Haiti are major sources of refugees.Mexicans flee poverty and violence.Haitian refugees flee poverty, earthquakes, and hurricanes.Young men flee El Salvador to escape forcible recruitment into violent gangs.

Religious conflict and persecution are certainly still on the radar as causes of flight.For example, in Yemen there is conflict between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, and Rohingya Muslims are being killed, raped, and driven out by the Buddhist Burmese government and gangs.But as with the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya being driven out, most of today’s refugees flee for reasons other than purely religious persecution—violence, war, and extreme poverty, often the result of climate change, are among the various factors. But often there is an undercurrent of religious difference and persecution.

And it must be acknowledged that opposition to acceptance of immigrants is often religiously tinged.For example, both Hungary and Slovakia have made very clear that they will accept no Muslim refugees.Several European political parties oppose immigration, especially by Muslims.And of course, there were the remarks by then-candidate Donald Trump about keeping Muslims out “until we find out what the hell is going on.”Of course, religion was not the only kind of xenophobia at play.He also expressed concern about Mexican “rapists.”

After newly elected President Trump announced a crackdown on illegal immigrants and raised questions about any renewal of the Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, the flood of people north to Canada took off.Remember the words of Emma Lazarus on the base of the Statue of Liberty?

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to be free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

It appears that the golden door is being slammed shut.

Because of the U.S.-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement, people entering Canada at regular points of entry and seeking to claim refugee status will be turned back, as the United States is seen as a safe country.As a result, many of those fleeing to Canada enter illegally, not at designated points of entry.Then they make a refugee claim.Thousands are making the trek, particularly up from New York into Quebec.

During the winter of 2017/2018, many went north into Saskatchewan and Manitoba.Seidu Mohammed, who lost all his fingers to frostbite while crossing into Manitoba that winter, was successful in his refugee claim.A Ghanaian, he sought refugee status in the United States, but he was stymied by the demand for fees, which he could not afford when his visitor’s visa ran out.Canadian immigration officials found that he had a reasonable fear for his safety if returned to Ghana, because he is bisexual.

Many of those fleeing north are under the false impression that they will be enthusiastically accepted.Ethnic media in the United States have told them so, repeating the words of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “To those fleeing persecution, terror, and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith.”It is not quite that simple, even if—unlike the United States—Canada has accepted about 47,000 Syrian refugees.The Canadian government sent Emmanuel Dubourg, a member of the National Assembly of Quebec (who immigrated from Haiti), to Florida to make it clear that the welcome mat is not really out for all and sundry.

Canadian refugee advocates are calling the Canadian government to end the Safe Third Country Agreement, so that refugee claims by those fleeing the United States could be made at regular border crossing points.They cite Mr. Mohammed’s loss of fingers and the death of another Ghanaian, Mavis Otuteye, who succumbed to hypothermia in Minnesota, close to the Canadian border.She was on her way to get to her sick daughter in Toronto.

The world today is in the midst of mass migrations, reminiscent of the period encompassing the run-up to World War II, the war itself, and its aftermath.People fled for any safe haven, often finding none.Some 60 million were torn from their homes, a number a bit less than that today.In one notorious case, the M.S. St. Louis set sail from Hamburg just before the war in 1939, headed for Cuba with 937 passengers, mostly Jews.Cuba allowed only a handful to disembark.The United States refused to allow the ship to dock.Canada did not step up, and so it had to return to Europe.Many of the passengers ended up in German concentration camps.Jews fled to the Middle East, India, and even Shanghai, China.Eventually, after the war the United States took in many Jews.Because then Prime Minister Mackenzie King and some of his civil servants were anti-Semites, Canada took few till after the war.At least in part because they were not welcomed elsewhere, many Jews moved to Palestine after the war.

Sudeten Germans were driven from Czechoslovakia.Other people fled the advancing Russian army.Many moved on when they found their houses destroyed.

Today we have the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing government action in Myanmar.In Ukraine there is again flight from the Russians, even if irregular partisans.In Syria there is massive dislocation of communities, both internally and externally, to far-off nations.And, less in the headlines, climate change and consequent loss of crops is driving desperate people north from Africa.

While Germany stepped up to take more than 1 million refugees, few other countries are doing much to meet the challenge.It is notable that while during the twentieth century Jews were the targeted scapegoat, today Muslim refugees are experiencing that same marginalization.

Where are the refugees going today?Lebanon, with a population of 4.4 million, has taken an estimated 2.2 million Syrians.Jordan, with a population of 9.7 million, has 1.4 million Syrian refugees and 370,000 Palestinians. Turkey has 3 million Syrians.While figures are not precise, the message is clear: the overwhelming number of Syrian refugees is found in surrounding countries, which are badly stretched and frequently economically challenged to start with. Aside from Germany and the Scandinavian countries, developed countries have not felt the weight of the crisis.Canada is doing moderately, and the United States is doing very little.The question of just how to balance security and charity remains. Just how can the lamp at the golden door be relit?

Article Author: Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.