Joe Gunn


November 23, 2015

It seems impossible to read a Canadian newspaper these days without weeping over coverage of the unprecedented refugee crisis worldwide.

Unexpectedly, even the Canadian election campaign was momentarily caught up in the Syrian refugee dilemma, after the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. And, in early October, Canada's Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter on welcoming refugees.

The statement, I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me (Matthew 25 and the Last Judgment), was a long-awaited project of the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace.

Our bishops are following the lead of Pope Francis, whose first trip outside Rome as pope was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where refugees come ashore from a treacherous Mediterranean crossing.

Hungarian volunteers share conversation, as they give coffee to refugees passing through Hegyeshalom, Hungry, on the way to Austria


Hungarian volunteers share conversation, as they give coffee to refugees passing through Hegyeshalom, Hungry, on the way to Austria

The pope was visibly moved by their situation, while decrying the world's "globalization of indifference" to their plight. Francis went on to challenge every European parish to welcome a refugee family.

In Canada, we have been asked to do no less. A September letter from the president of the bishops' conference asked "every Catholic parish and religious community in Canada that has the resources, to sponsor a refugee family

. . . either alone or working in collaboration with others."

But, the bishops' pastoral letter states, "today, unfortunately, most Catholic parishes in Canada are not involved in refugee sponsorship."

The bishops write movingly that "we must provide aid in the camps," perhaps recognizing the suffering of refugees is being unnecessarily protracted due to the lack of adequate global response.

Eighty-six per cent of the world's refugees find themselves in overcrowded and underfunded refugee camps, hosted by developing countries that already struggle to support their own citizens.

The average length of stay in refugee camps is approaching 20 years, up from an average of nine years in the early 1990s.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians (and others) attempt dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean to enter Europe because, after fleeing violence at home, the situation in their countries of asylum remains desperate and hopeless.

As of June 2015, the UN's humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees was only 23 per cent funded.


Canada has cut its foreign aid with disastrous consequences.

Under previous Liberal governments, Canada's spending on foreign aid began to fall in relation to the size of our economy - in spite of the longstanding target of dedicating 0.7 per cent to overseas development assistance.

But under the Conservatives since 2011, even raw dollar figures have declined. In 2014, development assistance spending was $4.9 billion, down from $5.7 billion three years earlier.


Ottawa's spending on foreign aid now sits at 0.24 per cent of Gross National Income - falling below the OECD average for the first time since 1969.

A long-term solution would see Canada more generously assist those poorer countries who are coping with the brunt of migration flows worldwide.

The bishops suggest "our action has to be twofold: we must certainly welcome them upon their arrival to Canada, but we must also support them while they are still abroad."

The bishops mention a third response: "political lobbying," and demand that "the Catholic voice be heard by the Canadian government." The pastoral letter provides a list of areas for improvement.

Church people who work with refugees will welcome this pastoral letter - but want more specific demands.

Immediately, the Liberal promise to receive 25,000 government-sponsored Syrians before year end must mean concrete support for faith communities that will serve these newcomers.

Our new government should refuse to contest the ruling of the federal court that found the 2012 cancellation of the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) to be "cruel and unusual." Refugees and refugee applicants need care, and the IFHP, which has existed since the 1950s, should be immediately reinstated.

Canada took only 23,286 refugees in 2014, roughly the same number as each year of the last decade. Indeed, the federal government should "expand the acceptance of refugees to Canada" specifically by facilitating procedures for refugees from beyond Syria.

By challenging us to welcome strangers, as well as act for change this Advent, our bishops are preparing our hearts and inciting our yearning for the coming of the refugee child Jesus.

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