press and opinions

Immigration Policy: Missing a Moral Compass - An Address to the Archdiocese of Winnipeg

  • / Oct 16, 2014 / by Tom Denton /
  • Your Grace and members of this great community of faith [the Archdiocese of Winnipeg], it is an honour for me to be asked to speak to you this evening. Thank you for this. Thank you also for the generosity of your several gifts to Hospitality House, particularly at this special time but also over many years of support. We could not do what we do without you.

    I know that tonight marks the ending of your ten year pastoral plan Building a Church of Communion and also that you are entering the 100th year that this archdiocese has served as a central community of faith here in Winnipeg. It is a time to look back, and to look forward.

    So I looked back to 2004. What was happening?

    • George Bush was re-elected President;
    • Stephen Harper became leader of the Conservative Party;
    • Hamid Karzai was elected with hope as the President of Afghanistan;
    • The 21–year civil war in Sudan ended, a prelude to the coming independence of largely Christian South Sudan;
    • The war in Iraq was in its second year and going well for the allied forces;
    • Israeli Prime Minister Sharon announced a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

    It was still a time of strife and uncertainty of course, but there is a positive tone in this list. Would anyone argue against my proposition that things are much worse today?

    • The Arab Spring has come and gone, hope displaced by despair.
    • Syria is a total disaster, producing unprecedented numbers of refugees with no end or hope in sight;
    • There are 51 million refugees and internally displaced persons, more than at any time since the ending of the Second World War
    • Iraq is a disaster as it is overrun by the demonic forces of ISIS, its people fleeing wherever they can, drawing us into fresh conflicts and reminding us of the desperation faced in 1939-40 as Nazi legions swept swiftly and seemingly unchecked across Europe;
    • Ancient Christian communities across the Middle East are being decimated to the point where survival seems unlikely;
    • Africa is nervous as civil unease begins to give way to outright conflict in places like South Sudan - along with terrorist threats. The horrific threat of Ebola makes daily news.

    You know the list goes on. You read and watch and hear the news like I do.

    You will not be so aware of the situation in places like Pakistan where Canada has felt compelled to reduce in embassy staff to skeleton size in the face of what seems might be a civil powder keg ready to blow.

    Or Nairobi in Kenya where such a nervous pall has settled over a nation fearful of the terrorist Al Shaabab, that Canada sent home in July all its married embassy staff, spouses and children, reducing its staff there by fifty percent and severely affecting the numbers of refugees we can sponsor there, or get out of there now. The embassy is now fortified with sandbags and staff is living within the compound.

    Our refugee arrivals from the eighteen countries served by Nairobi have dropped like a stone in recent weeks. And new sponsored refugee cases about to be admitted to processing there, because of lack of staff had suddenly in mid- summer to be dropped by seventy five percent, destroying the hopes of many.

    And what is next for Afghanistan as the Americans withdraw? Are we going to face another flood of refugees from there as we did a few years ago when four million fled?

    Hospitality House just about always finds itself with a personal window on these tumults of the times. As ISIS moved seemingly unchallenged across Iraq, a woman phoned me sobbing about her family. She’s a professor at one of our universities. Her family, upper middle class and professional people in Mosul, had been forced to flee northward with nothing but the clothes on their backs. ISIS thugs had even taken all their ID and passports and now they had nothing – except, for the moment, their lives.

    What could she do? Could we sponsor them as refugees out of there? Well, first of all, there is no mechanism on the ground there right now to rescue anybody. Canada’s closest embassy staff is far away in Amman, Jordan, refusing because of the personal danger to go northward to Erbil in northern Iraq even to process the Iranian Kurdish refugees, sponsored by Hospitality House, who have waited and survived there for years.

    And then there’s the little matter of the rules. You can only be sponsored as a refugee if you are already outside your country of citizenship. All these desperate folk fleeing northward in Iraq, are all Iraqis. They cannot be sponsored out of there anyway, unless Canada changes its rules. The same goes for six million internally displaced refugees in Syria.

    The Iraqi professor is a Christian as are the members of her family that we hope are still alive somewhere in Iraq. All she and we can do is pray for their survival.

    That same Monday morning a young man appeared in my office. He identified himself as a Yazidi from Iraq. I had only first heard of these Yazidis the previous Friday when a piece about them appeared in the Free Press, telling how thousands were huddled on a hilltop with no food or water, desperate in the face of the marauding ISIS monsters. And now here was a Yazidi in front of me. His mother, grandmother, sister and aunt had managed to escape to Turkey. Could I please sponsor them here, from there?

    I found out that there are 500 Yazidis in Canada, 250 of them in Winnipeg. I Googled and found that theirs was a unique 6000 year-old religion. But I couldn’t help him. Turkey won’t let the refugees there be resettled in refugee-receiving countries. They won’t give them exit visas.

    Why not? You ask. Canada’s man who heads this refugee program now was just back from meetings in Ankara two weeks ago when he told a few of us. The meetings had been with the fifteen refugee resettlement countries and the government of Turkey. The Turks are annoyed that they’re hosting now more than 1.5 million refugees from Syria, that it has cost them to date 3.5 billion dollars for minimum rations, and the fifteen countries have only ponied up a little more than $200 million. And the number of refugees they are likely to want and to take for resettlement is maybe 100 thousand – a drop in the bucket. Turkey doesn’t want to let these refugees go to Europe and America and by so doing make the country even more of a magnet for refugees that still might come. And they want financial help.

    Exit visas for refugees are a ransom extracted from refugees or their sponsors in Ethiopia where it costs $500 CDN per head to get them out. Ultra-rich Saudi Arabia is much worse where it can cost as much as $5000 before they’ll let a sponsored refugee come to Canada.

    You don’t hear much about Yemen but it’s high on my list of places of concern because Hospitality House had so many refugees flee there from Africa. The place is so unstable politically that Canada’s officers have refused to go there since the spring of 2010. At the time we had more than 500 sponsored refugees there, and processing was impossible. They were stuck there.

    Over the past four years we have worked to get as many out as possible, to other countries where they might at least have a chance of being interviewed by Canada. We’ve been lucky enough to get about 300 out so far, but it’s a dangerous passage.

    I had an email on Monday from Ann Mahon. You may know her. She’s the Winnipeg woman who authored the book of refugee stories with the apt title, “The Lucky Ones”, published here last year. She had a question.

    A teenage girl had been kidnapped in Africa, had managed to escape and was now in Italy. She’s 16. She has an older brother and sister here in Winnipeg who will care for her. How can she join them here? Seems like a normal enough question, a reasonable solution offered. But it is likely impossible.

    You cannot sponsor your sibling as an immigrant. That went out the window about 1991. Once upon a time Canada was built by successive waves of migrating families. No more! But I digress. Back to Ann’s case

    Refugees cannot be sponsored out of Italy because Canada deems it a safe place and the refugees there are deemed to have what is called a “durable solution”. No matter that refugees are flooding into Italy - 28,000 in the first eight months of this year; 3,023 more drowned in the Mediterranean trying to get there in the same eight months. No matter that refugees for the most part are living hopeless lives there in slums. Canada calls it a durable solution. That’s a political decision, not a humanitarian one, nor (dare I say it), a Christian one.

    My basic point is that Canada is a difficult country to get into. Our Immigration Act says very clearly that it is a “labour market strategy”.  It is not a “nation building strategy”. It is an import strategy. People are necessary commodities to keep the economy humming - like pineapples or oranges.

    As I was mulling over Ann’s question I happened to pick up a book in my library, a UNESCO collection of essays on the free movement of people. The book providentially fell open to these lines:

    “…migrants need visas to enter developed countries. The right to [migrate] is the privilege of the richest sectors of the population or the best-informed, who succeed in migrating legally and leave clandestine entry and settlement to the less well-off. This situation underlies the calls by philosophers, economists, sociologists and lawyers for a democratization of borders. Can countries that claim to be democratic, such as Europe and the United States, tolerate a situation where, in order for them to pretend that migration is controlled, people die or their doorstep every day, and criminal networks active in slavery and prostitution operate…?”

    That writer talked about philosophers, economists, sociologists and lawyers. I’d like to ask about the Christian position on human migration. What is it? Frankly I don’t know. But I cannot imagine that the Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount would support the restrictive, even cruel, things that happen daily in the name of Canada’s controls on immigration.

    Are these not questions, issues, harsh decisions, worthy of a Christian perspective? What would that be? Is this not a social justice issue that could stir the church to its very core?

    At Hospitality House we confront these questions every day. You may know that we are perhaps the largest single refugee sponsoring entity in the country. We’ve already landed 480 refugees here this year. What you will not know is that we have to turn down requests to sponsor that are ten times as many as the ones we land. I’m talking more than 5000 turn-downs of refugees wanting to be sponsored, saved, resettled in Canada. Every year! Just by me, personally. It’s the hardest thing I have to do.

    Why? Why?  Could I not fill a room with the many who volunteer to help, filling out all the paperwork? It’s not a big money issue because most requests to sponsor come from former refugee families already here who will be able, somehow, and with only minimal help from us to support their new family arrivals once here and until they get a job. So get on with it, Tom!

    Unfortunately it is impossible. Our Federal Government imposes limits on how many they will allow in each year – refugees and all classes of immigrants. For privately sponsored refugees the number is now about 6,500. The government about doubles that number with government-sponsored refugees and certain special programs. So we may land about 12,000 overseas-vetted-and-selected refugees who become Canadian permanent residents on arrival, no longer refugees. A drop in the bucket.

    Then there are the “refugee claimants”. In other countries they are called “asylum seekers” and I think that has a more compassionate sound. Our refugee claimants used to number in the 35-40,000 area each year. Now they are down to maybe 15-16,000. Canada’s unfriendly stance to any refugee that it has not previously chosen is becoming so well-known, so notorious, that most asylum seekers who might have tried once, now don’t bother.

    Here in Manitoba since the Federal government took back from the Province control of the money for immigrant settlement services in 2012, it has not allowed service providing agencies to help refugee claimants, and held the threat of withdrawal of funding over their agency heads. This is forcing Hospitality House to look at this major service gap for the saddest refugees in our city. We can do this because we don’t receive a cent of funding from any level of government. We can take a Christian perspective.

    Canada boasts of its generosity but how generous is what we do when there are 51 million? How generous is it when one old man in a small Winnipeg office is turning down 5,000 every year? And trying to put things into a Christian perspective.

    One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes comes from his play, The Merchant of Venice….”The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”

    Canada strains the quality of mercy every day when it comes to the immigration file. It is not only the number limits on refugees admitted.

    Two years ago the Federal government cancelled the Interim Federal Health plan that had protected refugees in their first year here since John Diefenbaker’s government brought it in, in 1957.

    It has made citizenship much harder to get, changing the rules that worked for a couple of generations. Who will that hurt? Or help?

    It has severely reduced the age of dependent children allowed to immigrate with their parents. How cruel is that?

    There are many examples of increasing meanness, the latest being the proposed bill to stop access to social assistance by refugee claimants.

    Who are these people and where points their moral compass?

    We clearly are not the compassionate Canada we once were, as editorial writers are beginning to opine across this country. During the Boat People crisis of 1979-82 we brought in 62,000 refugees and received the commendation of the world. Today in the face of the Middle East crisis and its millions of uprooted, desperate people, we have government talk of a few hundred.

    If I may be so bold, I would like to challenge you as you mark 100 years of faith and service to Winnipeg and the world, to take hold of this immense, complex human migration issue – especially as it pertains to Canada -- to examine it in all its dimensions in the light of the Gospel teachings, and bring forward into the marketplace of ideas, and yes, of politics, a Christian perspective on perhaps the biggest issue of our time.

    God bless you all.

    Tom Denton is Executive Director, Sponsorship, for Hospitality House Refugee Ministry of Winnipeg