JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

November 11, 2013

In the jam-packed cathedral of the Diocese of Hamilton, Ont., last month, I heard John Allen Jr., senior reporter at the Vatican for the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter, refer to Jorge Mario Bergoglio as "the pope of mercy." Nowhere is this more evident than in the attention Pope Francis has given to the world's refugees.

Three days after being elected last March, Francis was quoted as saying, "How I would like a poor Church for the poor."

His first trip outside Rome took place on July 8, when the new pontiff visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, home to 6,000 people and only 120 km from the Tunisian coast.

In the first six months of 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calculated that about 8,400 migrants and refugees landed in Italian and Maltese ports.

During his visit, the pope thanked the islanders for giving succor to these migrants and decried what he called "the globalization of indifference" to the plight of asylum seekers today.

In December 2011, Jason Kenney, then minister of citizenship and immigration, pledged to increase the number of refugees by 20 per cent.

However, government actually decreased the number it resettled by 26 per cent. Only 5,412 government assisted refugees arrived in our country in 2012, the second lowest number of refugees than in any year over the last three decades.

CLOSING DOORS

Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees and director of the Faithful Companions of Jesus Refugee Centre in Toronto, remarked, "Unfortunately, the government has been closing the door on refugees."

Last month's Speech from the Throne rather ominously boasted that the federal government had already "deported more than 100,000 illegal immigrants" and would move to "introduce a new model to select immigrants based on the skills Canadian employers need" (my emphasis).

Yet, the number of migrant workers in Canada has increased by 70 per cent in the last five years. Are refugees and migrants now nothing more than economic commodities for Canada?

CHEMICAL WARFARE

The ferocious violence in Syria has even seen the government unleash chemical warfare against civilians. People of faith were glad to join in the pope's call for a day of fasting and prayer for peace on Sept. 7, and heaved sighs of relief when the war was not escalated by Western military strikes.

However, some 2.1 million Syrians are registered as refugees, with 97 per cent of them living in poor conditions in five neighbouring countries.

Canada has offered humanitarian aid, and collections for Development and Peace and other aid agencies have proceeded. But Canadians may ask what are we doing to bring Syrian refugees to Canada?

Last July, Canada announced a commitment to resettle 1,300 Syrians by the end of 2014. (In comparison, Germany agreed to take 5,000, and since 2012, Sweden has taken 14,700.) But Canadian government-sponsored refugees will only amount to 200 persons, leaving private agencies and churches to do the heavy lifting.

Furthermore, there are huge delays that obstruct the efforts of Church groups to sponsor refugees, with the government itself saying the processing times in their Amman, Jordan office reach 21 months and rise to 40 months in their Cairo office in Egypt.

Also, the Canadian Council for Refugees reminds us, "Cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program mean that privately-sponsored refugees do not have coverage for some medical expenses, such as expensive medications or prosthetics.

"Some groups therefore hesitate to sponsor because of the risks of unanticipated expenses." Only nine Syrians were resettled by the government to Canada in the first eight months of 2013.

CHURCHES' PLEA

In September, the Canadian Council of Churches asked the federal government to, "Expedite a process that allows more sponsored Syrian refugees to apply for protection in Canada, and . . . increase public funding that assists refugees upon their arrival."

Amnesty International has also demanded that Canada adopt five policy changes to significantly increase the number of government sponsored refugees from Syria and expedite family sponsorships.

Only two weeks after Francis' visit to Lampedusa, a boat with almost 500 Eritrean migrants came to grief in the crossing; 354 people died.

In offering prayers for them, the pope called the situation "a disgrace." Canadian Christians can support efforts for much-needed change during the Proud to Protect Refugees Week of Action, Nov. 10-17.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)