Why Canada should take in 20 times more refugees

In Canada, ‘thinking big’ often means thinking a little less small. Scott Gilmore on why the image of a drowned Syrian boy must shock us into action

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ADDS IDENTIFICATION OF CHILD Paramilitary police officers investigate the scene before carrying the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. The family — Abdullah, his wife Rehan and their two boys, 3-year-old Aylan and 5-year-old Galip — embarked on the perilous boat journey only after their bid to move to Canada was rejected. The tides also washed up the bodies of Rehan and Galip on Turkey’s Bodrum peninsula Wednesday, Abdullah survived the tragedy. AP

A sign is seen near Emerson, Man. Thursday, February 9, 2016. Refugees have been crossing the closed border port into Canada at Emerson and authorities had a town hall meeting in Emerson to discuss their options. (John Woods/CP)
A sign is seen near Emerson, Man. Thursday, February 9, 2016. Refugees have been crossing the closed border port into Canada at Emerson and authorities had a town hall meeting in Emerson to discuss their options. (John Woods/CP)

There are 60 million refugees globally right now. This is a number not seen since the end of the Second World War. It’s a crisis by any measure. And the horrifying photos you’ve seen of dead children washing up on European beaches only represent a tiny fraction of the millions suffering in Syria, Sudan, Burma, Colombia, and a dozen other conflict zones around the world. This number has been mounting for a decade, but unfortunately we didn’t start to notice until a few of them began to cross the Mediterranean.

What is Canada doing to help? Not much. While Prime Minister Harper has claimed Canada has been extremely generous in accepting refugees, the actual numbers tell a different story. According to the federal government, Canada usually accepts 10,000 refugees per year. That is 1/60 of one per cent of the total global refugee population. That’s like spitting on a house fire.

The Conservative government is fond of boasting that Canada settles “one out of 10 refugees” worldwide. That is an incredibly misleading figure that assumes only 100,000 (of the 60 million) refugees around the world are resettled each year.

In truth, we’re doing very little compared to other countries. Annually, we are letting in one quarter of one refugee for every 1,000 Canadian citizens. By contrast, Germany is expecting 800,000 new arrivals this year, or 10 per 1,000 citizens. If one compares the economic ability of a country to accept refugees, Canada is accepting one-quarter of a refugee per $1 of GDP per capita. Germany is accepting 80 times that amount, or 17.4 refugees per $1.

In January the Conservatives pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over a period of three years, of which Immigration Minister Chris Alexander reports 2,500 are now in Canada. Prime Minister Harper later increased this multi-year target by another 10,000. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has upped the ante and called for a target of 25,000. The NDP have been less specific, but Thomas Mulcair has said Canada is “not doing enough.”

Sadly, these promises are almost meaningless. Canada is capable of so much more, and so much more is what is needed. Numbers rarely move us or our leaders to do great things. Sixty million is just a statistic. But we relate to people, and the image of a drowned child, lying in the surf on a Turkish beach, sent a shock of anger through the Western world. This is the moment when we want our leaders to do the right thing, to do something bold. Unfortunately, in Canadian politics, “thinking big” means thinking a little less small.

RELATED: His name was Alan Kurdi

If we wait for the political parties to lead in this crisis, nothing will happen. We all know this.

So, let’s lead them. Let’s push a real proposal to the political candidates, their parties, and their leaders. What if Canada aspired to do one-quarter of what Germany is doing? We wouldn’t double the number of refugees we accept, or even triple. We would increase it twentyfold, from 10,000 to 200,000 per year.

That would be 4.4 refugees per $1 GDP per capita, as compared to Germany’s 17.4. Not heroic, but not shameful.

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How much would this cost? Contrary to popular perception, the government of Canada pays very little to support refugees arriving in Canada. Financial support can be provided for up to one year or until they find work, whichever comes first. In Ontario, a single refugee could receive up to $781 per month for a year, in addition to a one-time allowance of $905. Germany calculates that they spend slightly more, about $11,600 (in Canadian dollars) per new refugee. Increasing our refugee intake by a factor of 20 would cost approximately $2.2 billion a year.

That might sound like a lot, but it works out to $63 per Canadian. The parties would only need to give up a few of the boutique tax credits they are sprinkling across the country. Better yet, the government could pledge to match whatever the public promises up to a maximum of $1.1 billion. This would cut the cost in half and force Canadians to put up or shut up. When this approach has been used in the past, to address an overseas natural disaster for example, the public has been extremely generous. We might surprise ourselves.

A real long-term solution will still require bringing stability to Syria and a dozen other war zones. And accepting 200,000 refugees per year is still only one-third of one per cent of the global refugee population. It seems like almost nothing in the bigger picture. But it would change the lives of 200,000, and that’s something.

So, Canada, let’s try something different. Let’s think big for once. Email your candidate and ask them why we can’t increase the number of refugees we take by twentyfold. And if they don’t answer, just keep sending them photos of dying refugees. Sadly, you have an almost endless supply.

RELATED: Inside the Syrian refugee crisis