Op-ed: The Canadian government should take in Rohingya refugees

A message from a student who started a petition calling for action on the crisis

Op-ed: The Canadian government should take in Rohingya refugees

Students at the University of Toronto must put pressure on the Canadian government to pursue key policies to address hardships faced by the Rohingya people. As a student, I have created a petition on the House of Commons website listing a number of calls to action for the Canadian government, including taking in stateless Rohingya refugees.

The petition has been sponsored by Member of Parliament Niki Ashton, and has successfully reached the goal of 500 signatures that is required for it to be presented in Parliament. I strongly encourage Canadian students at U of T to add their names to the petition and voice their concerns for the Canadian government to take actions that will alleviate the hardships faced by the Rohingya people.

According to a November 2017 poll by the Angus-Reid Institute, almost half of Canadians polled oppose prioritizing those fleeing Myanmar when it comes to Canada’s refugee acceptance policy. Furthermore, the fact that some Canadians are opposed to allowing refugees into the country on principle, I believe, indicates a profound sense of ignorance on the part of Canadians.

The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority in Myanmar and have been oppressed by the state for decades. The Rohingya people, under the nation’s 1982 citizenship law, are not recognized as citizens of the country, effectively leaving them stateless.  Furthermore, the Rohingya people have endured human rights abuses including restrictions on movement, limited access to healthcare, education, shelter, as well as experiences of arbitrary detention and forced labor.

Since the 1970s, there have been several crackdowns on the Rohingya minority by the state resulting in hundreds of thousands fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries. During such crackdowns, according to Al Jazeera, Rohingya refugees were subjected to torture, arson, and murder by Myanmar security forces.

The recent resurgence of violence against the Rohingya people was triggered after nine border police were killed in October 2016, and troops started pouring into villages in Rakhine state.  

The government blamed an armed Rohingya group for the killings. Subsequently, the Myanmar army proceeded to launch  a crackdown on villages where Rohingya lived. During the crackdown, the government troops were accused of committing egregious human rights abuses ranging from extrajudicial killings, rape, and arson — allegations which the government has vehemently denied.

Since the violence escalated, it is estimated that more than 500,000 Rohingyas have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Although Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar, does not have control over the actions of the military, she does have the ability to criticize and condemn the military’s actions against the Rohingya people. This is something San Suu Kyi refuses to do: she even said the term ‘Rohingya’ should not be used when talking about the persecuted minority group; lobbying this view to the US government in 2016. Currently, nearly half a million Rohingya refugees are residing in camps located in Bangladesh under deplorable conditions.

Despite the overwhelming human rights atrocities being committed against the Rohingya people, many citizens of western nations like Canada are opposed to the country taking in Rohingya refugees, citing that they are an economic burden to the country. Aside from the clear humanitarian reasons for taking in refugees, the reality, which many Canadians do not realize, is that allowing more refugees into Canada can actually be beneficial to Canada’s economy. Take Canada’s Syrian refugee population: a report from Vancity Banking estimates that Syrian refugees to British Columbia will generate more than $500 million over 20 years for the local provincial economy.

In fact, Canada actually needs immigration to survive. This country has a rapidly ageing population. Statistics Canada predicts that by the mid-2030s, almost one in four Canadians will be 65 years or older, while the working population will simultaneously decrease by more than 10 per cent. Cities like Halifax have realized the need for more young labourers, and its Chamber of Commerce has called for a greater intake of newcomers. In fact, in 2014, the Conference Board of Canada predicted that Canada would need to increase annual immigration to 350,000 new migrants a year over 20 years.

Canada has witnessed the thriving of many communities consisting of individuals who initially came as refugees to this country. If allowed into Canada, the Rohingya population can be just as successful in positively contributing to Canada’s society and economy. For example, after the communist victory in Vietnam, Canada took in more than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees. Now, the Vietnamese community in Canada is thriving: consisting of accomplished doctors, lawyers, teachers, and community members who are actually creating jobs in Canada.

The Angus-Reid Institute poll also indicates that 55 per cent of Canadians believe the government should not intervene in the Rohingya crisis. I would argue that Canada, as a member of the UN, has an obligation to intervene under the Responsibility to Protect protocol. In addition to accepting refugees, my petition has highlighted a way in which Canada can intervene diplomatically in a manner where it might make a positive impact. The petition has called on Canada to put forward a UN General Assembly resolution calling on all countries to stop providing arms to the Myanmar military. This resolution, if passed, might compel Aung San Suu Kyi to put pressure on the military to halt its crackdown.

With the exception of Indigenous peoples, we are all immigrants and settlers on this land. Many students at this university have parents and ancestors who fled hardship in their homeland to come and live in Canada. As the children of immigrants, and of refugees who fled to Canada in order to escape persecution, students at this university have a collective responsibility to help those who are currently fleeing from similar or worse forms of violence.

U of T students must mobilize together and raise greater awareness of the Rohingya crisis, through engaging in activities such as signing petitions and participating in public demonstrations. Most importantly, we must put pressure on the Canadian government to make a commitment to take in stateless Rohingya refugees into this country.


Pitasanna Shanmugathas is a fourth-year student at Innis College studying Political Science and Criminology. He started a petition on the House of Commons website demanding, among other things, that the Prime Minister make a commitment to take in stateless Rohingya refugees into Canada.

A universal language

Local artists create colouring book for incoming Syrian refugees

A universal language

FOLLOWING Canada’s recent admittance of 25,000 Syrian refugees, one thing has become clear: integration into Canadian society now depends on the quality of the opportunities available to them.

Last February, artists Rafi Ghanaghounian, Andrea Pearce, and Nicole Baillargeon undertook an ambitious project in the form of a colouring book for recently arrived Syrian refugees. Their project, a success in Toronto’s new Syrian community, exists at the nexus of art and social justice and is intended to help Syrian children and their families acclimatize to the new environment. 

Inspired by an idea from Windsor high-school teacher Bronwen Wood, Pearce and Baillargeon, who are both from Windsor, decided to introduce the project in Toronto. Tapping into the wealth of creative talent the city has to offer, the Welcome to Toronto colouring book features artwork from over 25 Toronto artists. The text under each image is in both English and Arabic. 

EDIT_COURTESY MYLENE HANGDAAN - Syrian Refugee Colouring Book 3

Courtesy Mylene Hangdaan.

The book project received financial support from a gofundme.com campaign that helped cover its initial printing costs.

The scenes depicted are a medley of images of some of Toronto’s architectural landmarks, seasonal activities, and favourite pastimes, to introduce Syrian families with Torontonian culture. Adding an individual touch, artists designed images that reflected their personal view of culture in Toronto. 

Ghanaghounian revealed that he had an intimate relation to the refugee experience. “I was also interested in the project because of my own background — as I immigrated to Canada from Iraq just before the war with Iran, as well as my grandparents escaping the Armenian genocide,” he explained. “This project let me reconnect with my own history, and also has allowed me to share the pleasures that Toronto has to offer.” 

The book is being sold online at keep6.ca and at the Spacing Store, the Aga Khan Museum, and the Gardiner Museum, with the goal of raising enough funds to provide each Syrian family resettling in Toronto with a copy.

The book was launched at the Gladstone Hotel last February with a donation of over 500 books to school boards and organizations like Costi, who also helped with distribution. According to Ghanaghounian and Pearce, feedback from all involved has been positive.

On the project’s attempt to mix art and social justice, Baillargeon, Ghanougian, and Pearce agree that the value of art lies in its communicable aspect. Both likened art to a universal language. 

“Art is certainly a natural platform to explore social justice issues. Language and other means of communication can sometimes have limitations that wouldn’t necessarily apply to visual art,” said Pearce. “So much can be expressed in an image; the language of art is universal.”

Ghanaghounian echoes similar sentiments about art’s values: “Art always plays a huge role in any culture and has an ability to bring attention to specific issues that are most relevant to that culture. In this case, art was used to incorporate everyday activities in Toronto to help a specific group encountering numerous challenges to transition more smoothly into their new environment, and it was wonderful to be able to contribute in this way.”

Op-ed: Building stronger communities

Providing refugees with health, social, and economic support should be a top priority

Op-ed: Building stronger communities

Safety, shelter, housing, and income are all necessary for physical and mental health and a high quality of life for refugees. Despite this, it is medical factors that are often solely emphasized in the public sphere, ignoring the fact that the social conditions that refugees encounter upon arrival in Canada can be harmful to their health.

We started Humans for Refugees to raise awareness of these other issues, because it is our responsibility to help newcomers adjust to life in Canada. Students’ support for refugee health now will mean a healthier population and a stronger economy and society in the future.

One challenging aspect of refugees’ experiences in Canada may be communicating their needs, while contending with language barriers. For example, in addition to physically accessing services such as housing and health clinics, refugees also need to be able to understand their options in these areas. Language barriers may also impede socializing with other members of Canadian society.

Refugees often face financial barriers as well. Government assisted refugees can receive up to a year of income assistance, which provides them with some time to adjust to their new environment. After this, they may be eligible for support from provincial governments. Yet, much like other welfare recipients, this is often at a level below the poverty line. Moreover, an absence of networking opportunities affects refugees’ job prospects; if they have limited social circles, they may not have access to opportunities. Lack of employment then limits income, which is known to affect health.

When entering Canada, refugees are also immediately faced with a lack of affordable housing. Likely with little understanding of the Canadian housing market, refugees need one-on-one assistance and education that will guide them through the process. The Resettlement Assistance Program created by the Government of Canada has a funding system that provides temporary residency, permanent accommodations as well as basic household items.

However, even for refugees that have access to this financial aid, the process is lengthy and immediate accommodation is not provided. Poor housing consequently affects employment, integration, and both physical and mental health.

Finally, while not as immediately apparent as other issues, refugees are known to face a higher risk of mental health issues than the rest of the population. Canadians concerned with refugee mental health should advocate for more accessible acute mental health care, including funding to access professionals trained in treating trauma, including conditions like PTSD. CAMH recently offered a U of T-accredited course for mental health professionals. More initiatives of this sort can help counselors overcome language and cultural barriers, improving the care that they can offer.

While we commend the federal government’s restoration of funding for refugee healthcare, more needs to be done. Without broad public pressure for action on social factors, refugees will not be able to become healthy, well-adjusted Canadians. Refugees are our neighbours, co-workers, community partners and fellow Canadians. Not only do we have a moral responsibility to them, but also improving their health status will help our economy and improve our society as a whole.

Humans for Refugees is a social media-based refugee health awareness and activism campaign. If you are interested in getting involved, please visit our Facebook page and email us your stories and questions at humans4refugees@gmail.com. We will also be gathering U of T students’ opinions on refugee health at the Sidney Smith lobby on March 30.

Whether you decide to reach out to a refugee family to offer help, volunteer with an organization, donate, or simply send a letter to your local MPP or MP, your support is essential. Individual efforts might seem minor, but they help build a strong community, leading to better health for all.

Miina Balasubramaniam, Sanah Matadar, Shameemah Khan and Julia Robson are students from Humans for Refugees.

A question of legitimacy

Evaluating the sincerity of humanitarian aid initiatives for Syrian refugees

A question of legitimacy

ON September 15, 2015, University of Toronto president Meric Gertler released a statement addressing the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Gertler wrote of the “overwhelming distress, sorrow, and frustration” he felt and stated how he was proud to be part of a community that was “joining an urgent, global response to the tragedy.”

Upon closer examination, however, Gertler’s address did not offer much in response to the crisis. Aside from listing “many examples of research, scholarship, and teaching from across our academic community that directly touch on issues raised by the crisis,” he did not demonstrate how the university is actively working to mitigate the impact of the crisis. 

Gertler did reference the expansion of the university’s Scholars-at-Risk program that will, at first, focus on Syrian students at risk. He also redirected readers to the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge, in which the University of Toronto has also agreed to partake. Yet, he did not put forward any initiatives the university itself will spearhead in order to provide refugees with what they require most at this time: basic human necessities.

Like those of the rest of North American society, Gertler’s actions — or rather, lack thereof — seem to be induced by psychological egoism. The theory defines every human action as being motivated by self-interest, meaning there are always selfish motives behind what appear to be altruistic actions.

When it comes to the Syrian refugee crisis, the self-motivation stems from its notoreity. People have adopted the crisis as the newest humanitarian trend; everyone is eager to be one of the passengers aboard the humanitarian aid bandwagon. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s welcoming of the first plane carrying Syrian refugees to Canada was the onset of the trend. Now, for the sake of public recognition, appeal, and approval, institutions like the University of Toronto are rushing to release statements that purport to highlight exactly how they are “making the world a better place.”

These insincere instances of humanitarian aid being brought forward only result in a lack of genuine commitment to the cause. With Gertler’s address being a prime example of how insincerity merely leads to perfunctory efforts, there are a few irksome components of the university’s contributions that demonstrate its lack of real commitment. 

First, as part of the Scholars-at-Risk program, the university is matching donations up to $500,000. It is questionable why it does not merely kickstart the fundraising campaign by donating the full amount. The funds covering their donation come from undesignated gifts that are to be used towards fundraising activities, and it would have been more effective to have donated the entire amount from the beginning. 

Second, the provision of academic-based financial aid to a select few refugees over the next decade is not an active way to help those in need.

Instead of providing supplemental bursaries — which in the long run, result in more funding for the university — it would be better to donate that money directly to a foundation that is focused on helping refugees adjust to life in Canada.

Third, with over 80,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, it is reprehensible that the university is unable to lead its own initiative. There is no doubt that the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge will be helpful but more could be accomplished if the University of Toronto launched its own project.

Hopefully, the university’s efforts will still manage to benefit some refugees before their time in the spotlight comes to an end. Unfortunately, recent humanitarian-inspired trends have all seemed to end as abruptly as they began. The summer of 2014 brought the short-lived ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and just a few months ago, the terrorist attacks in Paris sparked a Facebook-wide profile picture update. It would be interesting to note whether or not the participants of these initiatives remember that those people are still suffering today. 

Even more concerning than short-lived, noncommittal humanitarian aid is the objectification of refugees that has resulted from the popularity of the crisis. The media is rife with videos of Syrian children experiencing snow and other features exclusive to Canada, newspaper profiles documenting ‘first days of,’ and public posts claiming ownership over the situation; one woman goes so far as to refer to the person she is sponsoring as “our Syrian refugee.” The individuality of each person coming to Canada for help is becoming lost in the process.

It is time to put the humanity back into humanitarianism and to start performing altruistic actions from a wholehearted place. Although humanitarian aid requires real effort, time, and commitment, it does not need to be documented or publicly displayed. Furthermore, we must always keep in mind that those receiving help are just as human as those providing it. 

Ariel Gomes is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English, French, and linguistics. She is The Varsity‘s associate senior copy editor.

Canadian identity and the refugee crisis

Rhetoric of “relative tolerance” hinders meaningful dialogue on racism

Canadian identity and the refugee crisis

The Canadian media has emphasized our country’s warm welcome of Syrian refugees, as well as our rejection of the fear and bigotry that characterize conversations about refugees elsewhere in the world. In a similar vein, after the pepper spray attack on Syrian refugees during a welcome event in Vancouver earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded on social media: “This isn’t who we are – and doesn’t reflect the warm welcome Canadians have offered.” His remarks show the way in which the discussion of refugees has been dominated, sometimes unhelpfully, by the language of Canadian patriotism.

This rhetoric does have value, especially in affirming newcomers’ sense of safety and belonging as they start their lives in Canada. A man who was hit in the pepper spray attack, Youssef Ahmad Al-Suleiman, told The Globe and Mail that, to refugees leaving behind political instability in their home countries, Trudeau’s clear and immediate condemnation of the violence is a meaningful gesture. Still, the public response to the Vancouver attack, which mirrors Trudeau’s comments leaves little room for exploring nuanced approaches to racism and Islamophobia in Canada.

It is comforting but not entirely accurate to claim that exclusionary violence “isn’t who we are” as a nation. Compassion and respect cannot be called inherently Canadian qualities any more than intolerance can. While Canada ha stated a commitment to advancing human rights, Canada’s history is marred by the legacies of Japanese internment camps, immigrant exclusion acts, and the residential school system, among other institutions of racial discrimination.

If the majority of Canadians today value compassion toward and acceptance of refugees, it is not because of the example of our national history, but in spite of it. Recent violence motivated by racism and Islamophobia, although committed by a minority of Canadians, shows that bigotry is still alive and well in Canada, often very close to home, whether or not we represent bigoted acts as Canadian, or acknowledge their place in Canadian history.

In the last few months alone, a mosque was set on fire in Peterborough; several incidents were reported in the Greater Toronto Area of Muslim women being harassed or assaulted in public places; Muslims were asked whether they were sorry for the Paris attacks; and a Muslim U of T student was spat on and harassed outside Robarts. This is to say nothing of smaller-scale acts of bigotry that often go unnoticed or are trivialized in classrooms, online comment sections, and other daily interactions, which Iris Robin noted in The Varsity last week. 

Characterizing inclusion and compassion as essentially and even uniquely Canadian qualities is of limited value in uncovering the roots of racism in Canada and reducing violence and bigotry in the future. We have no hope of addressing the problem if we cannot acknowledge it first.

By writing off violence against refugees and racialized people as isolated incidents, and not representative of Canada as a whole, we risk minimizing the real threat of violence many Canadians face on a daily basis. If we are committed to making our campus and our wider communities safe and welcoming to everyone, refugees or otherwise, then we must commit to conversations about racism and bigotry that move beyond simple characterizations of Canada as an almost universally accepting place. 

Language matters; let us be clear, direct, and honest in articulating the values and commitments we hold above all else. We welcome refugees into our communities today not because it is the Canadian thing to do, but because it is right. In the same way, we must condemn attacks against refugees not because these acts are un-Canadian, but because they harm real people, reduce refugees’ humanity, and violate our shared commitment to building a just and equitable world.

Rusaba Alam is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English.

Safe haven in the spotlight?

While considering Canada’s efforts to help refugees, beware of media bias

Safe haven in the spotlight?

This past December, crowds gathered at airports in Toronto and Montreal to welcome the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada in the coming months. The warm and enthusiastic greeting they received is the envy of people across the world, especially with the recent rise of xenophobic populists like Donald Trump in the United States and Marine Le Pen in France.

Simultaneously, it also provided a great photo-op for a recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appear more ‘open’ and relatable, at least in comparison to his predecessor. Prime Minister Trudeau even went as far as urging Canadians to welcome the Syrian refugees in his Christmas message in The Toronto Star.

There is no doubt that Canada’s efforts to take in refugees should be applauded – in fact, many of our peers came to Canada in a similar way. However, it is also important to view Canada’s contributions from a global perspective, and take caution not to become complacent.

it is also important to view Canada’s contributions from a global perspective, and take caution not to become complacent

The 25,000 refugees — Immigration Minister John McCallum says as many as 50,000 refugees, at least 70 per cent from Syria, could arrive by the end of this year — the Liberal government has pledged to bring to Canada by February is a mere drop in the ocean, given the number of civilians in the region. There are around four million refugees across Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, at least one million living in Lebanon alone, where they make up almost one-fifth of the countrys population. In Jordan, the influx of people is roughly equivalent to almost the entire population of Canada moving to the United States, in less than two years. The Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan — a tract of land once fitting for a post-apocalyptic film set — is now the fourth-largest in the world and houses around one hundred thousand refugees.

To make matters worse, about six million people remain internally displaced in Syria. Of the five million refugees generated by the Syrian civil war, 51 per cent are 17 or younger. There is growing concern about the ‘lost generation’ – children growing up in refugee camps, uneducated, angry, and bored.

The sheer scale of the issue is of particular importance when considering the coverage of the crisis by major outlets. Appealing to emotion is an easy way for outlets to capture bandwidth and sell advertising. Portraying the new government in a positive light is also an easy way for a public broadcaster, gutted by funding cuts, to win some political clout.

The CBC’s coverage of the arrival of the first plane carrying Syrian refugees came off as a desperate attempt to lionize the Prime Minister to an angelic status. It may be heartwarming for viewers to see the Prime Minister fitting children into winter jackets, and the Premier of Ontario handing out stuffed animals. However, these apparently grand gestures pale in comparison to the work required in the great project that is solving the refugee crisis.

The Liberal government’s openness to Syrian refugees is not even that groundbreaking as far as policy goes. Since 2005, Canada has admitted over 260,000 refugees. The largest source is not Syria, Somalia, or Haiti – countries typically associated with refugees – but Colombia. Ongoing low-intensity conflict over the past 50 years has brought over 17,000 Colombian refugees to Canada since 2004. Even as the first group of refugees arrived from Syria to the Prime Minister’s official welcome, another group of Ghanaian refugees were arriving without fanfare.

Certainly, we should be proud of Canada’s contributions to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. But, especially as students, we have a responsibility to be critical of a fawning media and a camera-ready Prime Minister. There are other conflicts around the world that continue to affect millions of people, and those individuals deserve just as much of our attention as the most recent group of proud, new Canadians.

Jonathan Wilkinson is a fourth-year student at University College studying international relations.