by Brian Dyck
None of us who work in refugee resettlement in Canada will forget 2015. The year started with an increase in the level of interest in refugee resettlement from the general public in Canada. In this changing environment, I took on national leadership for MCC’s refugee resettlement program. In an attempt to direct MCC resettlement efforts, a working group had been struck in late 2014 with communications and refugee resettlement staff to stimulate refugee resettlement of Syrians and Iraqis. There was a hope that we would resettle 2,020 Syrians and Iraqis by 2020—MCC’s centennial year. Looking back now at a report recommending this, I noted in the margins, “…the number is too high… We will need to ‘change the channel’ to get somewhere on this.” By change the channel, I meant we would need to really work hard to get people’s attention.
Then in September 2015 just as we were about to launch our public awareness campaign with a scaled back goal of a few hundred refugees resettled, the image of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a beach in Turkey hit the internet and resonated with people in Canada and around the world. Many wanted to do something, and the refugee resettlement program moved beyond our control.
Our plans, which focused on raising public awareness of resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees seemed superfluous; public awareness of the plight of Syrian refugees and the possibility of sponsorship was well known. Our task shifted to responding to inquiries and engagement at a level we had not seen since 1979 in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
The scale of the shift can be told partly in numbers. If we use 2014 as a benchmark, 2016 saw an increase of 1,190% of the number of people sponsored through MCC in Canada. This was a seismic shift for MCC in Canada.
There wasn’t just an increase in numbers in 2015. Before the surge, we worked mostly with long-term partners and family members of the people sponsored. In 2014 we were working with around 20 Constituent Groups (CGs). By the end of 2016, we had more than 450 groups who were listed as active in our database, many being relatively new to sponsorship.
The level of activity has subsided somewhat since 2016. In 2018, MCC along with our wonderful constituent groups welcomed a bit more than 600 refugees to Canada—well below the 2016 peak of 1,824, but also well above most years in the previous few decades.
The government of Canada has made an increased commitment to refugee resettlement as well, through the various sponsorship models. In the 20 years between 1995 and 2014, about 3,725 privately sponsored refugees were settled per year. Since 2015 to the present, an average of about 17,600 privately sponsored refugees were settled per year. In other words, since 2015 there have been as many refugees privately sponsored as have been settled the previous 20 years.
What has that meant for MCC?
The last few years have brought both challenges and opportunities for MCC.
The huge increase in interest in refugee sponsorship among our constituents has allowed us to provide many more refugees with a durable solution in Canada. In addition, it has raised awareness of not just the human cost of war and violence for refugees in the Middle East, but other refugees that are in protracted displacement from places like Eretria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar. Ultimately this has led to a better understanding and support for the role that we as private citizens and Christians in particular can play in “Welcoming the Stranger.” This rise in awareness of refugee situations is perhaps the lasting legacy of this surge in refugee sponsorship in Canada. This direct connection with refugees by many people in Canada can help us see another side of the issue when people start talking about turning back refugees. It is hard to do that when former refugees have become our friends.
Other states have either started a refugee sponsorship program or are seriously consider it. Often, they look to Canada as a model for sponsorship and refugee resettlement and MCC staff have been consultants to states and NGOs in South America and Europe.
While it has been exciting and energizing to help people get involved in this very meaningful work, it has also been challenging to meet the demand. On the plus side, it has spurred us to become more efficient and develop better practices for tracking and supporting sponsoring groups. However, this has stretched MCC resources of time, money and talent. We have a very talented and dedicated team working at MCC on refugee resettlement but finding the financial support for this team is challenging.
Looking ahead, we are beginning to ask ourselves where we go next. One of the things we have talked about is to make sure that the people who come to us who are interested in refugee resettlement are also thinking about the other responses to displacement. While the number of refugees we have helped in Canada has gone up significantly, it is still less than one percent of the refugees in the world. Because it is such a small solution to the problem of forced displacement, we need to consider how the less than one percent who are resettled have the most impact. That means following the advice of agencies like the UNHCR who support refugees in their host countries as much as we can when we choose who to help resettle in Canada. That is a constant challenge. The pressure to resettle family members of those already in Canada is understandably relentless, even though there may be refugees who are in more dire situations.
It also means looking at ways we can address the root causes of displacement. We need to ask: why did these people have to leave their homes in the first place? It has been said that what we do to help refugees is something like pain-relief therapy for a sick person. If a person is in pain it is important to make sure that the pain is addressed in an effective way. However, we should not assume that pain relief is the cure. The cure for the global refugee crisis is peacebuilding. MCC works at that in a number of places around the world where there is conflict. Making sure that we are involved in dealing with the reasons people have for fleeing their homes is part of the cure. This is an important complimentary step for the crucial and very meaningful work of welcoming refugees into our communities.
Brian Dyck is National Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator for MCC Canada.