Like many Canadians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper choked up when he saw the photos of a young Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Mediterranean beach last month. Speaking to the media on Sept. 3, his voice breaking, he called the child’s drowning “a heartbreaking situation … a terrible tragedy.”
Unlike most Canadians, however, Harper was in a privileged position to do something about Syria’s swelling refugee crisis in the months leading up to the Alan Kurdi’s death. Unfortunately, the Conservative government reacted to one of the worst humanitarian crises in memory by shutting the door on refugees and delaying their resettlement.
Last spring, as Syrians were fleeing the broken country in record numbers, the Prime Minister’s Office instructed Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s department to “review” a “first tranche” of United Nations-approved, government-assisted refugees from Syria. While these refugees were mostly Muslim at the time, going forward the Conservatives were determined that priority should be given to Christians and other non-Muslim minorities.
Officials were also reportedly reacting to American concern that terrorists might be trying to enter the country illegally. The Harper government never loses a chance to bring up the issue of Islamist terrorism and his campaign against niqab-wearing women has been a low point of the election.
From the start, the Harper government’s response to Syria’s agony has fallen hopelessly short of past Canadian generosity to tens of thousands of Southeast Asians, Czechs and Hungarians fleeing Soviet communism, Iraqis and others.
Canada has managed to resettle barely 2,500 people in the past three years, when civil war has shattered the largely Muslim Arab country, killed 250,000, and sent four million fleeing abroad. Shamed by Alan Kurdi’s drowning, and with an eye to the election polls, the Conservative government was forced to acknowledge its inefficient Syrian policy.
When Canadians were calling for a compassionate, generous response to Syria’s agony, this government was trying its best to do as little as it could get away with, for as few as possible.