By Isaac Wurmann
My grandfather arrived in northern Manitoba in the 1960s after a long trans-Atlantic crossing. Two decades later, thousands of Vietnamese boat people were welcomed into homes across Canada in the spirit of a country that has historically been generous to migrants arriving at its shores.
Alan Kurdi never made it to Canada. Instead, the three-year-old Kurdish boy washed up on a beach in Turkey after his family’s boat capsized as they fled conflict in Syria.
Because the Kurdi family has relatives living in Vancouver, the tragedy has turned focus onto Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. In the context of the upcoming federal election, Alan Kurdi’s death has also been used for political posturing and promises.
Sadly, the Kurdi family’s situation is not unique. While working at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) this summer in the office that processes refugee applications, I saw hundreds of similar cases.
Despite any good intentions, the gears of Canada’s immigration system are turning too slowly for refugees fleeing crisis around the world.
Canada is not making it easy for refugees to apply for resettlement. My colleagues and I returned dozens of applications to sponsor refugees from Syria and other conflict zones because sponsorship groups were unable to navigate Canada’s complicated application process. Regular changes to rules have only made this problem worse.
Prior to 2014, families applying for resettlement could include children up to the age of 22 in a single application package. In 2014, CIC changed the rules so that all children over the age of 19 now require their own, separate application packages.
On top of this, the forms necessary to apply for resettlement in Canada have been changed multiple times in recent years. This has made it difficult for refugees and sponsorship organizations to stay up to date on the most recent process.
To be considered for resettlement through the Group of Five sponsorship program, which is how Canada accepted thousands of boat people in the 1980s, refugees must provide a certificate from the UNHCR or a foreign country to prove their refugee status. Asylum seeker certificates and other documents are not considered by CIC as adequate proof.
For people who have recently been displaced by conflict, it can be difficult to get these certificates before applying for resettlement. Although it is necessary to make sure Canada is accepting legitimate refugees, in a time of crisis this screening should not get in the way of providing aid.
Earlier this month, Carleton president Roseann Runte said the school “should play a role in furthering research, reflection, academic and public debate on the question of refugees.” She promised the university would continue to seek ways to offer “volunteer support” for refugees.
Volunteer support is not a strong enough response to this humanitarian disaster. As an academic institution with a wealth of expert knowledge and dedicated students, Carleton should be lobbying institutions to make it easier for Canadians to directly offer support to refugees.
During this election campaign, universities must demand commitment from whoever is elected on Oct. 19 to strengthen Canada’s refugee policy. Playing numbers with migrants is not enough; we must develop a system that makes it easier for vulnerable groups to apply for resettlement.
Except for this land’s Indigenous peoples, all Canadians have a history of migration. Most families, if they look back in their history, can probably find somebody who came here by boat.
These shores have welcomed millions of people, and our convoluted application process is standing in the way of them welcoming millions more.