For the past few months I have remained silent on the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis. Public opinion in Canada on how to respond to this situation is severely divided, particularly along political party lines, and unfortunately the dominant narrative seems to be largely incapable of nuance.
Ever since the image of a drowned Syrian boy off the coast of Turkey went viral in September last year, the overwhelming and vehement sentiment of the Canadian public has been that the Syrian civil war is the “worst humanitarian crisis of our time” and that drastic measures must be taken to immediately bring massive numbers of refugees into Canada. Any dissenting opinions – even on fundamental issues of security – have been unfairly demonized as being rooted in “racism and xenophobia”. But with the recent exposure of hundreds of instances of assault, sexual assault, and sexual harassment perpetrated by Syrian refugees in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, and Finland, the pendulum of public opinion appears poised to swing dangerously to the opposite extreme.
Undoubtedly the Syrian refugee crisis is a major humanitarian issue, and Canada, as an economically-developed, privileged, and progressive country has a moral obligation to provide support to victims of the Syrian civil war. A complete denial of this moral obligation to help Syrian refugees may reasonably be said to have a basis in racism or xenophobia.
On the other hand, to deny the very real security issues that arise from bringing in massive populations of Syrian refugees is dangerous and intellectually dishonest. The unfortunate reality is that the refugees come from a region where intolerant and discriminatory views of women, non-Muslims, and members of the LGBT community are the norm and where the spread of Islamic fundamentalism is a growing issue. Already in Canada more than half of religious-based hate crimes are perpetrated against Jews; what will be the effect on Canada’s Jewish community of mass immigration from a region where Jew-hatred is pervasive? The widespread incidents happening now in Europe, where there has been mass immigration of refugees combined with subpar screening procedures, serve as a lesson against failing to take these factors into account.
Fortunately, the new Canadian government seems to be increasingly cognizant of these issues. Trudeau campaigned last year on a promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees before the end of 2015, but in November, citing security concerns, his government extended the deadline to March 2016 and limited acceptance to families, oppressed women and children, and members of the LGBT community. Even with these revisions the government still seems to be struggling: only 6,000 refugees were brought in by the end of last year instead of the planned 10,000, and most of those 6,000 were screened under the previous government. Clearly the Liberals are realizing that ensuring the safety of Canadians through proper and thorough screening of Syrian refugees takes more time than they previously anticipated.
Therein lies the nuance that is sorely lacking from the mainstream narrative: while we do need to take care not to stereotype refugees or to allow safety concerns to serve as a cover for racism and xenophobia, we must also be careful not to allow political correctness to prevent us from taking appropriate precautions. It is possible to find a balance between the two. And as a progressive country that wants to maintain its liberal values into the future, finding that balance is absolutely necessary.