By: Nimesha Wickramasuriya

The 2011 Syrian civil war has resulted in more than ten million individuals in need of humanitarian assistance. Many have fled to neighboring European countries but some have been denied access. For example, last week Croatia was overwhelmed with the number of refugees entering their country and sent thousands of individuals to the Hungarian border without the assurance that they will be granted safe access. In light of these recent events, I would like to take a look at the Canadian history in refugee assistance and what we can do to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis.

Canada has a long history of involvement with refugee assistance, even before the country became independent of British rule. In 1776, 3,000 African-American individuals escaping slavery were granted safe passage into Canada. In fact many Canadian citizens can trace their origins in Canada back to humble refugee beginnings, which contributes to the Canadian population’s multicultural blend.

Unfortunately, Canada also has a history of hostility; in 1939, 907 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution boarded a ship called St. Louis and headed to Cuba hoping to escape Germany. The Cuban government, as well as the United States, and other Latin American countries refused to grant them access. As a last resort, they started their journey towards North America hoping Canada would take them in. After a month long voyage at sea, they reached our border only to be refused entrance again as Prime Minister Mackenzie King  felt that this was “not a Canadian problem.” They were forced to return back to Germany where all of them were placed in concentration camps, and where 254 of them faced excruciatingly horrible deaths.

This occurred over 75 years ago, and the outcome of St. Louis still haunts our collective consciousness, yet this event did not hinder the hostility of Canadians in the future towards accepting refugees. In 2010, after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, a boat occupying 490 refugee escapees reached British Columbian coastal waters after a three month long voyage. They did not receive a warm welcome; they were faced with armed border guards and RCMP officers, as if escaping the war-torn country was not enough. Their boat was thoroughly inspected by officials for human trafficking, drugs and “terrorist-like activities” and even after the full inspection they were detained in the boat for several months until Canada made a decision. Meanwhile, the health of the refugees declined greatly without medical assistance, resulting in one death and several others severe cases of illness.

I hope history does not repeat itself with the Middle Eastern refugee crisis. Fortunately, some European countries have been providing assistance: Germany has granted access to 50,000 refugees per year, while the UK has pledged to take in 20,000 refugees directly from Syrian refugee camps by 2020 and France has consented to 24,000 individuals.

But with over 10 million individuals displaced from their homes, this is not enough. Canada and the Harper government has agreed to take in an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq over the next four years but has also elusively stated that there may be “processing delays.” This is a pitifully low number considering that Ontario being larger than Germany, the UK and France combined.

After the St. Louis and the Sri Lankan-Tamil boat, one would think the barriers that we put up would be broken down, so what is keeping our country from accepting more? At the moment the government and media seem to be one-sided, only focusing on the negative aspects of accepting refugees.

This type of coverage can result in racism and damaging stereotypes. I believe accepting more refugees might actually help Canada by contributing to a more diverse population and better unifying Canada with the Middle East. We ought to learn from our past mistakes, disregard our prejudices, and allow more refugees into our country.


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