US and Canada Should Offer Leadership on Syrian Refugees

September 16, 2015 Updated: December 29, 2015

Sadly, the image of the lifeless little Aylan Kurdi of Syria on a Turkish beach has galvanized more people outside the Middle East about the barbaric crimes occurring in the region than anything else.

As the journalist Terry Glavin and others have noted, the consequences of the mayhem now include 4 million Syrian refugees scattered across the region and Europe—not to mention the more than 12 million forcibly displaced within Syria itself, who struggle daily to avoid Islamic State (ISIS) brutality.

There are now approximately 250,000 dead victims of Bashar Assad’s carnage and 27,000 photographs of victims beaten and tortured in his prisons since 2011.

In Iraq, Aylan Kurdi’s own often abused cultural community, the Kurds, and their peshmerga soldiers are fighting ISIS courageously and effectively, although it still holds large swaths of both Syria and Iraq.

Assisted by the U.S.-led coalition’s airstrikes, the peshmerga have retaken almost all the Kurd-inhabited territory in both countries and protected not only Iraq’s infrastructure but its people and about 1.6 million refugees seeking sanctuary with the Kurds.

The government of Turkey under President Recep Erdogan still appears to be only partly serious about defeating ISIS, while mostly attempting to stir up an old conflict with independence-seeking Kurds in Turkey (the PKK) for partisan purposes in the upcoming Turkish elections. The PKK has committed most of its fighters in Syria to opposing ISIS.

What should Canada and the United States do?

The United States has an admirable record with refugees, including, accepting more than 1.5 million Irish between 1845 and 1855 (the time of the Irish famine), 40,000 Hungarians in 1956 (immediately after the Hungarian uprising), and 280,500 Vietnamese between 1978 and 1982 (when the boat people fled Vietnam).

America has long been the world’s chief receiving nation for refugees and immigrants.

With the notable exception of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s (when Canada also failed egregiously), America has long been the world’s chief receiving nation for refugees and immigrants.

Following Canada’s successful refugee resettlement experiences with 90,000 Irish in the 1840s, 37,000 Hungarians in 1956–1957, about 11,000 Czechs in 1968 after the Soviet invasion, approximately 7,000 Ugandan Ismailis in 1972–1973, more than 50,000 Vietnamese in 1979 and afterward, tens of thousands of mostly Tamil Sri Lankans, and 35,000 Bosnians, many Canadians would appear to support accepting a minimum of 50,000 additional refugees from Syria.

“There are 20 million refugees waiting at the doorstep of Europe,” asserts Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner for European neighborhood policy.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany courageously declared, “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, it won’t be the Europe we wished for.” Her government will resettle up to 800,000 Syrian refugees this year, an unprecedented response.

Canada and the United States have been embarrassingly slow to respond to a host of atrocities, including ISIS raping of Yazidi, Kurdish, and Christian women and then selling them as slaves in the market.

How many more Aylan Kurdis will we see if we don’t initiate immediately the rapid handling methods of earlier refugee crises?

For Canada, it appears that only about 2,500 refugees from Syria have managed to scale various bureaucratic stumbling blocks during the past three years. How many more Aylan Kurdis will we see if we don’t initiate immediately the rapid handling methods of earlier refugee crises?

An economic argument against receiving refugees is offered by some, but it overlooks that many fleeing Syria are highly educated and industrious people, who, like so many newcomers, will help stimulate economic growth. We all know that most immigrants to our two nations are willing to take even unskilled jobs to build better lives for themselves and their families. 

For those who worry that ISIS agents will slip in unless long and drawn-out procedures are followed, it seems highly unlikely that a Syrian refugee or someone displaced from a minority religion there is masking as an ISIS assassin.

As two nations of such abundance of both space and opportunity, what should our response be to this global problem? Fifty thousand refugees arriving in Canada alone would be a gift both to them and to us. The United States is able to absorb even more.

In 1913, Canada, with fewer than 8 million residents, accepted 400,000 immigrants from then unfamiliar corners of Europe and the Russian Empire. The United States accepted many immigrants the same year. We must both get things right again this time.

There are currently about 60 million refugees globally—a number not seen since the end of the World War II. Canada and the United States cannot help all of them, but we can, like Chancellor Merkel and others, show some leadership from afar with the Syrians.

David Kilgour

David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.