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Sunday, 20 September 2015

Slandering Canadians on immigration

This past Friday (September 18th) the Globe and Mail newspaper published an op-ed penned by former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal sharply criticizing Canada’s immigration and refugee policy, calling it “bigoted” and “vision free“, and contrasting it with the policy of Germany which, under Angela Merkel’s “enlightened” leadership he asserts is “set to take in more than 800 refugees.”
Setting aside for the moment the shockingly ad hominem nature of his attack – I will return to that presently – Mr. Segal is playing fast and loose with the facts.

To begin with, the German Government did not agree to “take in” 800,000 refugees, at least not in the way Mr. Segal is suggesting. What the German government actually said was that it expects to have to process as many as 800,000 refugee claimants in 2015, perhaps more. But this does not mean that all, or even most, will be accepted. As Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier explained to the press: “… alleged refugees and illegals… who have quite no chance to stay in Germany, have to be sent back… as soon as possible.” Indeed, of the approximately 218,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in Germany in the first six months of this year – a quarter of the estimated 800,000 – more than half arrived from safe countries like Serbia or Albania, and of these, tens of thousands have already been deported back after their refugee applications were rejected.

This latter detail about being deported back to the country from which they entered Germany as opposed to being deported back to their country of origin is important because it helps explain the difference between what Mr. Segal thinks German officials are talking about, and what they actually are talking about.

A big problem with this whole debate is that people are throwing around terms like immigrant, refugee, migrant and asylum-seeker as though they mean the same thing. They do not. The United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, the governing treaties in international refugee law to which Canada is a signatory, set out who is and who is not a refugee. Refugees are defined as those who
owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
Let’s assume that a Christian Arab flees Syria into Iraq because he fears persecution in his home country, then flees by plane to, let’s say Italy, because he fears persecution in Iraq as well. That person would be classified as a Syrian refugee in Italy and the Italian government would be prohibited, pursuant to its treaty obligations, from sending him back to Syria or Iraq if, after investigation, it can be shown that his expectation of persecution in both countries is well-founded.

But if, after landing in Italy, he travels by car to Germany to claim refugee status there, the German government would allow him to stay while they process his claim (as they are obliged to do) but they would inevitably reject that claim and deport him back to Italy since there is no reasonable expectation that he would face persecution in that country.

This is not to say that he could not eventually settle in Germany, but he would have to do so as an immigrant, not a refugee, which means making a different application from outside the country. That application may be processed differently – more quickly, for instance, and with other criteria such as education and work-skills waived in recognition of his refugee status in Italy – but he would still have to apply.

Now, the reader may be thinking that all of this is simply splitting legal hairs, and maybe it is. It certainly is of no use to the millions of real people who have been displaced by the conflict and chaos in Syria and its neighbours. All the same, it’s an important point to understand because it debunks the myth that “bigoted” Canada is not doing its fair share, in contrast to “enlightened” countries like Germany. The reason Germany is prepared to temporarily house and process 800,000 refugee claimants isn’t because Germans are generous (they are), it’s because they have to once they arrive in Germany. And the reason Canada is not “accepting” 800,000 refugee claimants isn’t because our policy is “bigoted”, it’s because they can’t get here to make the claim in the first place. If they could make it, we would have to process them too.

So what about those refugees who have fled persecution and are currently languishing in camps and other temporary shelters in safe countries? They can and do apply to come to countries like Canada, but they don’t do so as refugees per se. They do so as potential immigrants. And as it happens, Canada has one of the most open and generous immigration policies in the world.

When combined with refugees (yes we actually do get them and allow them to remain if their claims are legitimate) and temporary foreign workers who are granted permission to stay in Canada, the number of new permanent residents settling here in 2014 was in excess of 400,000, proportionately well above the 800,000 claims Germany estimates that it may have to process but not necessarily accept in 2015. What’s more, between 400,000 and 500,000 immigrants and refugees is about the number that Canada settles every year as a matter of ongoing policy, and not as a temporary reaction to a developing crisis as is the case in Germany and other countries at the moment. These new Canadians represent many different races, religions, nationalities and cultures.

The point is this – when compared to what other countries are doing, Canada is pulling its weight and more, and it is doing so in a responsible manner consistent with international laws and in fulfilment of its treaty obligations.

Can we do more?

Obviously, the answer to that question is yes. But doubling the number of people allowed settle in Canada – whether they are refugees or not – isn’t as easy as Mr. Segal is implying.

This isn’t the 1890s when new arrivals were simply pointed west and left to fend for themselves. Nor is it the 1950s – or even the 1970s – both periods that Mr. Segal points to as examples of what Canada has done in the past to help refugees. I admire Mr. Segal's "can do" attitude, but we are not living in a Dudley Do-Right cartoon where we simply get to laugh at the misadventures and miscalculations of our big-hearted, but hapless, hero with no real harm done.

Even at current levels, the rate at which our population is growing is rendering existing urban plans obsolete, overwhelming an already aged and deteriorating infrastructure, and putting great strain on public education and other social welfare initiatives. Nor are today's immigrants integrating into the broader community as easily as they used to, partly due to policies that encourage the retention of cultural distinctiveness, and partly due the revolution in transportation and communications that allows new immigrants to never really leave their countries of origin, wherever they settle.

Whether these developments are good or bad I will leave to the judgment of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren; I am merely reporting the facts. Good or bad, however, these are serious issues, and serious people - compassionate people who care just as much as Mr. Segal - are thinking about how to address them, a challenge made all the more difficult by the decisions of past "visionaries" whose visions included everything it seems... except how to pay the bills.

Which brings me to the subject of Mr. Segal suggesting that Canadians who do not agree with him are small-minded and bigoted (his words, not mine).

As a Canadian, and as the son of an immigrant, I find Mr. Segal’s obloquy both ignorant and tasteless. As a Jew, however, I find his invocation of Canada’s notorious “none is too many” policy concerning Jewish immigration prior to World War Two particularly odious. Suggesting that Canadians – like me – who counsel a more cautious and integrated approach to immigration are motivated by the same sort of animus that led the Liberal government of the day to send a ship-load of Jewish refugees back to Germany in 1939 where most perished at the hands of the Nazis is an outrageous slur.

No government of Canada today – especially not the current government – would ever do such a thing, and not because doing so would violate both international and Canadian law either. Those allegedly small-minded and bigoted plebeians – that is to say, average Canadians – upon whom Mr.Segal glares down from his perch atop his taxpayer-funded ivory tower, would rise up in righteous indignation if their government ever committed such a reprehensible act. That Mr. Segal could even think otherwise is an indication of just how little he knows and regards the people he is preaching to.

To be fair, Mr. Segal could have been suffering from indigestion or a tooth-ache when he wrote his homily. That may not explain its hubris, but it might account for its petulant effrontery. We all have bad days and bad moments when we say things that, upon reflection, we rather would not have, and when we do, we acknowledge the mistake, apologize for any hurt or harm it may have caused, and move on. That would be the correct thing to do here.

But if, on the other hand, Mr. Segal really believes that people like me are small-minded bigots, well then he should have the courage to say so unambiguously.

Come on Hugh – stop hiding in the rhetorical shadows of implication and innuendo. If you really think I’m a racist, have the courage to put it in print, or say it on radio or television, clearly and explicitly.

Just make sure you spell my name right, if you please!