06 September 2015

How many refugees should we accept?

Joseph Stalin once said that if you kill one person it's murder, if you kill a million it's a statistic. The old psychopath, who knew a lot about killing one person and about killing a million, put his finger on a key element of human sensibility. We have difficulty connecting to people in the aggregate; we need to connect to the individual to realize our humanity. Such is the case with the Syrian refugee crisis.

The civil war in that country has created millions of refugees and we have paid limited attention, but the picture of little Aylan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach has touched the world's heart. Like Kevin Carter's famous photo of a vulture looming behind a starving Sudanese infant, or that of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing her napalmed Vietnamese village, Aylan's photo has become the symbol of his people's tragedy.

Historically, Canada has been generous in accepting refugees from violence. When the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, we accepted 37,000 refugees. We took in over 100,000 boat people after the Vietnam war. And this was when our population was much smaller. We should be able to accept substantially larger numbers today. The Syrian crisis is as pressing as either of these tragedies and deserves equal generosity, yet our response has been pathetic. Fewer than 2,400 Syrians have been resettled in Canada during the last two years, with an overall commitment by our government to accept a meagre 11,300.

The NDP proposes bringing in more than 46,000 government-sponsored refugees by 2019, including 10,000 by the end of this year. The Liberals call for expansion of our intake to 25,000. If we accepted the same number as we did after the Hungarian uprising proportional to our population today, the number would be almost 80,000, and we are a much richer country today. If we are no less a moral country, even the NDP and Liberal figures are modest. We can do much, much better.

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