Last Thursday, October 8, the Kawartha World Issues Centre (KWIC), the World University Services Canada (WUSC), and the Student Association for International Development (SAID) hosted a panel to discuss the Syrian Refugee Crisis and Canada’s role. The well-balanced panel was comprised of Dr. Feyzi Baban, a professor of International Development Studies at Trent University whose research focuses on migrant routes and the politics surrounding refugees; Lilas Aidk, a Syrian refugee who arrived to Canada this past July; Gloria Nafzinger, the refugee coordinator of Amnesty International in Canada; and Brenna Farren, co-chair of WUSC. An audience comprised of both students and community members alike filled Bagnani Hall, with more than 90 attendees.

The discussion centered around two crucial topics related to the refugee crisis in Syria. The first of these issues was the stigma surrounding refugees, which in turn has informed policy and directly relates to the second over arching theme of the evening, which was the lack of an adequate response form the international community, including Canada. The term “refugee” is misleadingly associated with dangerous, negative, and bogus connotations. Refugees around the world have been stigmatized and have increasingly been constructed as detrimental to nations. This erroneous yet prevalent view of refugees has informed the international community’s response to the crisis, which can be described as mediocre at best.

Gloria Nafzinger argues that “the biggest threat that we have is to overcome xenophobia and the fear of most Canadians when talking out the other.” She stated that Canada’s policies on refugees have been based on the widespread belief that refugees are a threat to national security, which has lead to regressive legislature. In other words, Canada has been taking steps backwards by removing refugees’ rights one piece of legislation at the time. This is reflected in the declines in government-funded refugee programs, barriers for privately funded programs, and Canada’s inaction in regards to Syria.

Nafzinger suggested that the way forward is to undo the work of the past ten years, and to open borders rather than close them. In order to do this, however, perceptions on refugees must change and that is the greatest challenge. Mainstream perceptions on refugees do not reflect the reality of the situation. Dr. Baban, who travelled to refugee camps and witnessed the flow of refugees escaping from Syria, noted that those who managed to leave Syria have done so because they have the socio-economic means. Before their lives were disrupted by conflict, refugees had jobs, homes, families, education, and a decent livelihood.

Refugees who have left Syria have done so because, as Dr. Baban phrased it, “everybody’s war is being carried out in the middle of Syria,” and they are seeking a safe place where they can continue to carry out their lives.
Additionally, it is important to note that the most intense forms of solidarity are happening in places that have welcomed the largest number of refugees. Dr. Baban described the situation in Lampedusa. It is illegal to help refugees in Lampedusa but despite this law, fishermen are constantly aiding refugees who are attempting to cross the treacherous passage on ill-equipped and overcrowded boats.

Brenna Farren also described the sense of solidarity and the mutual learning that students who have been involved in WUSC and who have been engaged with refugees have experienced. It is crucial to re-conceptualize refugees around more positive connotations, as policy surrounding the crisis reflects the current negative perception of refugees. Nafzinger stated that the policy response around the world has largely been to “build up walls and put up fences.” However, she also stated that refugees, like water, will inevitably keep coming and keep finding cracks in these barriers to trickle through as the conflict in Syria escalates.

It is for this very reason that borders should be opening, rather than closing. The journey of refugees is far from easy. It is incredibly dangerous, expensive, and difficult to leave Syria and arrive to Europe. However, while the European Union has closed its doors to the vast majority of refugees from Syria, neighbouring countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have absorbed most of the 4 million refugees who have left the country.
Turkish law prohibits those of “the east” to be granted the status of refugees, which means that opportunities for Syrians in Turkey are limited: there is no employment other than under-the-table jobs, no adequate education systems for children, and no possibility for a future in Turkey.

Lilas Aidk spoke of this matter, arguing that as a single mother with two children, she could not afford to stay in Turkey due to the lack of education for her children and the lack of opportunities for herself. It is for this reason that many refugees have embarked on the treacherous crossing to Greece and into the European Union. However, the issues do not end once refugees make it into the European Union. The Dublin Protocol states that refugee claims must be made at the point of entry to the European Union, which places Greece under disproportionate pressure. Greece, in light of its economic situation, is not an appealing place for refugees and does not have the capacity to absorb such large numbers, WSO refugees continue into the European Union with hopes of being able to make their claims as refugees in northern countries.

However, Europe has made it incredibly difficult for refugees to make their journey and to claim refugee status. With borders closing, heavy surveillance, and mediocre resolutions to accept refugees, their numbers are in the thousands when, really, they should be up in the millions. Refugees escaping a conflict that they have no control over have only found roadblocks along the way. As Dr. Baban stated, the “crisis” is not a crisis at all for the European Union or the international community – countries in the Global North, where the refugees seek to continue their livelihoods, are well-equipped to absorb a much larger number of refugees than what they have so far and than what they have proposed for the future. The crisis is a crisis for refugees, not for the rest of the world.

But despite the failure of the international community to address the situation, efforts of solidarity have emerged. WUSC, for example, seeks to bring refugees to Canada through education. WUSC at Trent will be bringing two refugees in the upcoming academic year, and is currently raising funds to bring a student refugee for 2016.  In addition, many nations have opened their doors to refugees in times of crisis, as the Syrian crisis is only one example of refugee movements around the world. Ngina Kibathi, a Kenyan student, positively noted that “as much as there are a lot of people who are not doing anything, there are many people who are doing something.”

In order to address global refugee movements adequately, changing the stigma around refugees is crucial and necessary. Amnesty International’s campaign rightfully seeks to change these perceptions and actions by promoting a simple yet powerful and much needed message: “I Open My Doors For Refugees.” Do you?