Canada's Refugee Dilemma

Canada's Refugee Dilemma November 17, 2015 · 10 min. read

I didn't want to write this article. I wanted to write something fluffy like "5 Places to Visit in Canada in the Winter" or something interesting like "7 Lesser Known Religions". I wanted to write an article that would take people's minds away from the shootings and bombings in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. I wanted to talk about something other than the long failed "War on Terror" and the Syrian refugee crisis. Out of everything I had planned to write this week, I didn't want to write this.

But I had to.

The world is reeling from the attacks around the globe, and people are pointing fingers at the Syrian refugees that are making their way through Europe via the Schengen Area. The attacks in Paris were committed by Daesh (frequently called Islamic State), a radical extremist group born in the lawless void of Syria and Iraq. It is this barbaric group of 7th Century ideology that is sending millions fleeing into Turkey, filtering through the Balkans and into the Schengen. Because many of the Syrians are Muslim, and the perpetrators were Islamic extremists, many around the world are afraid that there could be terrorists inside the refugees looking to feed off the kindness of other countries and commit more attacks.

Eiffel Tower

And they're probably right.

The fact is, we don't know who these people are, and we don't know their religion, we can't pronounce their names, we can't say their words and we can't believe they are all innocent, especially after Paris.

So what do we do? We look back at history.

This year is the 71st anniversary of World War II. This war sent Jewish refugees fleeing throughout Europe looking for safety. Jews were the Muslims of the 20th Century. They were "different" than their Christian counterparts, with strange clothing, strange words, and pre-Catholic beliefs. They were untrusted and rejected by most of society. Western Jews had tried to integrate into society while Eastern Jews tried to form their own identity. Both ultimately failed. By the end of 1945, over 6 million Jews had been exterminated by the Germans in hellish concentration camps via gas chambers, furnaces, scientific experiments, execution lines and mass live burials.

In 1939 a German Ocean liner, the St. Louis, fled war torn Germany carrying with it 937 Jewish refugees. The ocean liner was headed to Cuba in hopes of finding safety. Once arriving at Havana however, they were not allowed to dock. Cuba had changed their refugee and immigrant laws and the visas the passengers had purchased were no longer valid. 22 were able to enter Cuba with their US visas, 2 were Spanish citizens and could enter, and another 2 had Cuban citizenship. One more was allowed to enter after attempting suicide and had to be hospitalized. The remaining 908 were turned away and sent back.

The ship then attempted to dock in Florida, and at one point was so close passengers could see the lights of Miami. However, the United States refused them and, as some conflicting reports have said, fired a warning shot to keep them away. Being only two days away from Halifax, Canada, they then pleaded to the Canadian government for their help. Instead of being sympathetic however, the government refused to open their doors.

In fact, Canada welcomed the lowest number of Jewish refugees from the war, by only accepting a measly 5,000 with the United States welcoming over 200,000. When asked how many Jews Canada would be willing to take, Frederick Blair, the director of the Government of Canada's Immigration Branch responded: "None is too many."

Jewish Refugees

The ship's infamous journey, now known as "The Voyage of the Damned", returned to Europe after which the refugees were divided and sent to several countries for hopes of safety. Within a year all but the United Kingdom had been invaded and almost a third of all the refugees had been killed.

This, however, is sadly only one of the thousands of stories of the Jewish people attempting to flee at the hands of the Nazis, with another being the heart-wrenching story of Anne Frank that touched people's hearts around the world.

Otto Frank

After the war, Germans were expelled from countries such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary and were sent to back to the remains of Germany. Other Germans that fled west away from the Red Army were forced east by the Allies. Millions of refugees were dumped into Germany. In the words of Winston Churchill: "There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble… a clean sweep will be made". 12 to 14 million Germans were relocated back to Germany after the war, 550,000 of them in July, 1945 alone.

When it was all over, the world made a promise to itself: never again would we let racism divide our nations, never again would we let the mass executions of millions occur, and never again would we turn our backs on those who need our help.

After World War II we have had hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to Canada. We've had Estonians, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Czechoslovakian, Tibetan, Ugandan, Chilean, Sikh, Kosovan and over 50,000 South-East Asian refugees arriving to our country. Since our embarrassment in World War II, we have gone out of our way to help refugees, wherever in the world they are.

Beyond those listed above, Canada has also welcomed freed African slaves, fleeing British Loyalists,  American draft-dodgers, and refugees from Scotland, Ireland, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Palestine, China, Bangladesh, Iran, Bosnia, Bhutan and Burma.

Hungarian Refugees Boat People Refugees

In total, Canada has offered safety for refugees in over 140 countries around the world, the majority after the shameful voyage of the St. Louis.

Did some of these refugees bring violent actions and dark hearts with them? Of course they did. We accept real people into our country, not angels. We accept the fact that not everybody who is fleeing Daesh wants to be here, and they will probably resent the way they are treated here. When they arrive they will face racism, fear and hatred – something they didn't have to face back home, and something they didn't expect here. There will be reports of them being assaulted in the streets, and possibly public marches against having them here, as there was against the Ukrainians and Chileans.

Unwanted Chilean Refugees

But all that doesn't matter. What matters is that we help them. It isn't just Canada's responsibility to help these people, but the world's responsibility. We have gawked at the Syrian civil war since the Arab Spring and did nothing, and actively campaigned in bombing and destabilizing Iraq for the past twenty years. This crisis, this war, the attacks on Paris, the bombings of airplanes, the shootings in Parliament, all of it, is because we refused to act when we needed. Instead of acknowledging the devastation we were causing, we ignored it until it came knocking at doors asking for help. We have a responsibility this time, much like we did 71 years ago, and we are faced with the same dilemma.

Do we let them in? Or keep them out?

Syrian Refugees

Image of the "Boat People" was taken from CBC's "Vietnames Boat People Share Refugee Survival Stories 40 Years On."

Image of Jewish Refugees belongs to The Canadian Encyclopedia's article "Canada's Complicated History of Refugee Reception".

Images of Hungarian & Chilean Refugees belongs to Archive History's "Canada's Complicated History of Refugee Reception".

Image of Syrian refugees belongs to The Star's "For Syrian refugees, it's shame Canada".

Image of Otto Frank is from the University of Texas and Austin's article "Anne Frank and the archive".


And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.

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