Welcoming refugees in troubled times

Our world is taking uncertain turns. Countries are becoming more insular and inhospitable to refugees and those fleeing terror. The United States has suspended all refugee admissions from Syria indefinitely. This is disheartening, because the Syrian crisis keeps producing many refugees who need safety.

This leaves Christians with a greater responsibility to welcome refugees. Scripture enjoins us to welcome the stranger in our midst, and treat such a one as one of our own (Leviticus 25:35). However, when it comes to welcoming refugees to Canada, we can only do as much as government policy will allow.

Our country has a rich immigration history. Our refugee resettlement program has welcomed over 275,000 refugees. This includes over 30,000 Syrians resettled just last year.

Canadians’ goodwill has contributed to this success. Many have sponsored refugees privately, either in small groups or in communities. Church communities have also been the core of Canada’s private sponsorship program and its successes.

But elsewhere in the western world, political messages (from the Brexit and the US presidential election) indicate that growing nationalism may dominate contemporary international politics.

In the first week of his presidency, Donald Trump challenged long-held values of diversity and accommodation for which the United States is known. He signed an executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days, and suspended all refugee resettlement activities for 120 days. Trump wants to "admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people." As a result, airports around the country have been venues of protest against this divisive policy.

It seems that fear is beginning to dominate our world, on both sides—for refugees faced with uncertainties on safety, and for nationalists fearful of some threat refugees seemingly pose.

This turn in global events is significant for Canada. It means that our refugee resettlement program might have to handle more cases than ever before.

We should be proud of our immigration system, but we cannot afford to be complacent, or self-righteous. Canada is not immune to exclusionary and anti-refugee attitudes.

Clusters of nationalist groups (such as the Canadian Nationalist Front) are pushing for stringent anti-immigration measures in Canada. Some political leaders espouse nationalist ideals that contradict our collective responsibility for humanitarian support to refugees.

Under certain circumstances, a culture of fear could thrive in Canada as well. Recent attacks on worshippers at a Quebec City mosque show the real threat xenophobia and Islamophobia pose to Canada’s diversity. If left unchecked, it could threaten local support for refugees and undermine our private sponsorship system.

That’s why churches must continue to welcome refugees and reject xenophobic views in Canadian communities.

Canada’s role as a global model for humanitarian effort comes with huge responsibilities to refugees. So, during these troubling times, our government’s policies must help private sponsors work more efficiently.

The best way we can do this is to ensure that refugee applications to Canada are processed faster. We must react quickly enough to respond to the growing anti-immigration sentiments in Europe and the United States.

Our Prime Minister has expressed Canada's desire to welcome the refugees America denies. But we need to ensure that our policies (on resettlement and integration) are prepared for this responsibility.

First, Canada must reasonably expedite the application process. Second, our government should not require refugees to repay loans incurred on travel and medical expenses. We must ensure that poverty is not another hurdle refugees have to overcome in their new lives here.

As Christians, we are called to welcome the weak and vulnerable into our communities. Hebrews 13:2 admonishes us to open our homes to those who need it—refugees in flight from terror in our day.

The Canadian government cannot bear the imminent burden of refugee resettlement alone. Churches will need to continue their good work. Our leaders must invest their political will to ensure that sponsors have the resources and policy support necessary to welcome many in their flight from danger.

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About the author

Bolu Coker is a policy intern at Citizens for Public Justice, a faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa.