Joe Gunn


July 7, 2014

I'll never forget the refugee child who died in my arms. Deep in the jungle of southern Mexico, by 1983, 100,000 Mayan refugees had fled the barbarous offensives of the Guatemalan Army. I had been visiting Church workers along the river and had not had a meal since the first day I arrived.

You can't eat when everyone around you has nothing – all our food had immediately been given away upon arrival.

Three days later, awaiting the bush plane flight out, a Mexican doctor and three children desperately needed transport to hospital. The pilot didn't want responsibility for any of these suffering kids, but I could pay with American dollars.

Shortly after takeoff, the emaciated boy in my lap breathed his last. To avoid the trouble of paperwork back home, the pilot immediately banked the plane, swearing and landed back on the jungle clearing. I trundled out, in shock, to pass the wee cadaver back to grieving parents.


Months later, photos of that same child, waiting on the jungle runway with a drip in his arm, appeared in brochures for European solidarity groups. I had no idea that Mexican doctor was connected to aid agencies there. But I hope that this little boy's death somehow prevented the suffering of others.

I also hope I never forget how refugees still need us to respond – today.

June 20, 2014 marked the International Day for Refugees. The United Nations reported that 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced, fully six million more than reported in 2012. The year 2013 set the highest record since the Second World War. The war in Syria accounts for most of this disturbing increase.

Seven million Syrians have been internally displaced and 2.7 million are seeking refuge outside Syria's borders. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called for international partners to resettle 100,000 refugees. Historically, Canada has taken pride in accepting 10 per cent of all refugees resettled worldwide.

But Canada has only committed to resettle 1,300 Syrians by the end of 2014 (a target not likely to be met). Churches, non-profits and individual volunteers will be paying for rent, groceries, furniture and medication costs for up to a year for 1,100 of these, while the government will handle the settlement expenses for only 200 Syrians.


Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has been unable to answer CBC Radio's repeated question of how many have actually arrived.

Citizens for Public Justice believes we can do more. We suggested to the minister that Canada could respond by accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees – and much more rapidly than we have acted to date.

Two years ago, the federal government took away health care from privately-sponsored refugees. Your church and mine has been left to pick up the costs that our government no longer feels compelled to offer. (All the provincial health ministers have decried this cut, and several have decided to cover refugees at their own expense.)

Worse yet, a private member's Bill (C-585) from Conservative MP Corneliu Chisu was presented in the House of Commons in April. It would remove from the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act the limit on provinces imposing a restriction on period of residence on certain refugees and other immigrants in order to qualify for social assistance.

The Supreme Court recognized in 1985 that such benefits extend to refugees demanding asylum in Canada. International law stipulates that states need to assure the social security of protected persons, including social assistance (Convention on Refugees, articles 23 and 24). Should the private member's bill become law, it will surely be contested in the courts.


Extremely vulnerable people whom the government deems bogus or unworthy of being in Canada will be left with no means of supporting themselves – and no health care if they become ill.

Since the House has risen for the two and a half months of summer, MP Chisu's bill will not come up for debate until the House resumes sitting this autumn. The Official Opposition is dead opposed.

Over the summer, Christian communities who support refugees should contact their member of Parliament to ask them to oppose this legislation.

When you act, remember the Syrian kids in the refugee camps. Remember 51 million displaced people around the world. I'll be remembering a little boy in the Lacandon jungle of southern Mexic0.

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