Washington Briefing Told of Canada’s ‘Overwhelmingly’ Positive Refugee Response

'Why is Canada so different?" moderator asks
July 13, 2016 Updated: July 13, 2016

WASHINGTON—A Canadian politician offered a positive view of the country’s experiences with Syrian refugees during a July 11 briefing session south of the border, where the current political climate is far less welcoming of migrants.

Arif Virani shared some observations about Canada’s experience during a briefing session on Capitol Hill attended by a number of U.S. congressional staffers and moderated by the Washington bureau chief of The Economist magazine.

Virani, the parliamentary secretary for immigration, was asked about a recent cover story in the New York Times headlined, “Refugees Encounter a Foreign Word: Welcome.” The moderator, David Rennie, asked, “Why is Canada so different?”

Virani responded by referring to various factors, including the role of Canadian media in sharing positive stories about the refugees, like those who helped with fundraising in the aftermath of the Alberta forest fires.

There are challenges, but the challenges are very different.
— Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration Arif Virani

He cited the role of Canada’s private sponsorship program, which other countries have been studying as a possible model in the midst of a historic migration crisis. Virani said private citizens hoping to sponsor refugees have pressured the Canadian government to open the door, not shut it.

“The response has been extremely overwhelming,” he told a panel hosted by the U.S. National Immigration Forum.

“To the point where it might seem a bit odd for people in this room, or in this country, but the criticism we get in Canada about refugee resettlement is, ‘Why is it so slow? Why is it not faster? Why are people not coming sooner? Why have you stopped bringing in charter planes?’

“So there are challenges, but the challenges are very different.”

Canada and the U.S. have both received a mere fraction of the number of migrants spilling into the Middle East and Europe. However, the political reaction in the two neighbouring North American countries has been a study in contrasts.

Canada has welcomed 28,000 refugees so far and expects almost 45,000 by year’s end, Virani explained; in the U.S., the Obama administration has been dealing with political blowback over its plan to bring in 10,000.

A recent Nanos survey suggested 68 percent of Canadians supported or somewhat supported the government’s refugee policy. Yet different surveys indicate Canadians were concerned about specifics of the plan—like its speed, its security precautions, and the resources available within communities.

That issue of resources was illustrated in documents reviewed by The Canadian Press, first obtained by conservative website The Rebel. It said the arrival of refugees caused various problems in a New Brunswick high school this year; staff complained about lacking access to translators, about classes being disrupted by linguistic and cultural differences, and about students being intimidated by older refugees.

Success stories, security concerns

Virani did not refer to those incidents. He did, however, urge policy-makers and media to tell success stories.

He pointed as an example to his own history; he was born in Uganda, his family fled persecution under the dictator Idi Amin, and he later became a lawyer and MP. He also referred to Canada’s minister for democratic reform, Maryam Monsef, who escaped Afghanistan on a donkey and whose story President Barack Obama mentioned in a speech.

He suggested Americans might not hear these stories as often as they used to: “Where has that Lee Iacocca rags-to-riches [Ellis] Island narrative gone?” he said, referring to the son of Italian immigrants who as an auto executive helped launch the quintessential American car, the Ford Mustang.

Virani also discussed security concerns.

That issue was less prevalent at the briefing than it was a few months ago in a formal hearing in the U.S. Senate, where some border-state lawmakers pointed to the influx of refugees in Canada to argue for more jobs for customs guards in their states.

Virani stressed that security is a priority. That’s why, he said, Canada conducted its refugee interviews abroad; gathered biometric and biographical information about potential candidates; and plugged the information into databases and shared it with the U.S.

“Because we are not about jeopardizing the security of our own citizens—or jeopardizing the security of our closest, most reliable ally. We take that very seriously,” he said.

Indeed, some Canadian diplomats in the U.S. stress that security is more serious to them than any other issue; Three-quarters of Canada’s exports go next door, and the impact of border-tightening after the 9-11 attacks left a long-lasting negative effect.

From The Canadian Press