The Refugee Crisis: From Shock to Hope

An Address to the Canadian Multicultural Education Foundation Harmony Brunch for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

By Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.
Edmonton, Alberta
March 19, 2000

The number of refugees in the world is exploding. The number has grown from 1.2 million in 1951 to 2.8 million in 1976 to 27 million in 1995 to 51 million today. One out of every 280 people on the planet is a refugee who has crossed an international border.

Last year, Canada took in 21,900 refugees. The second largest country in the world, acclaimed by the United Nations as the No. 1 country in the world, took in only 0.0004 percent of the world's refugees.

Yet a new survey, conducted for the federal Citizenship and Immigration Department, shows that half of Canadians think there are too many refugees coming to Canada. Moreover, despite economic high times, distrust and intolerance of visible minorities among Canadians has grown. For example, the survey's results indicate new neighbours from Britain and France make Canadians feel better than neighbours from India, Somalia, or Algeria.

We ought to be shocked and outraged that such a miserly attitude is so prevalent among Canadians.

Is it because some boatloads of refugees tried to sneak into Canada? Is it because terrorism is sometimes associates with the deprived? Or is it because down deep in our psyches many Canadians still fear the modern world, which is mostly non-Western, non-white and non-Christian?

It is time for Canadians to wake up and face the racism that still infects our life. It is true that there are many Canadians who deeply respect the application of human rights to all minorities. But these positive attitudes are submerged by the ugliness of those who still hold that if a person's race, religion or culture is not the same as "ours," then they are inferior. The lingering racism and intolerance in Canada are an affront to what Canada stands for in the modern world - tolerance and equality. Whether we are Canadian by birth or choice, we are all equal partners with a stake in the future of Canada.

In addition to intolerance, misinformation is at work here. Not only does Canada bring in only an infinitesimal number of refugees, we do not even reach our target. Last year, Canada expected to admit 29,300 refugees, but the actual number was 7,400 less. Canadians generally do not understand that the number of gross human rights violations, mass murders, famines, wars and conflicts within as well as between States will produce more pressure on countries like Canada to offer haven to the vulnerable and dispossessed. The ethnic cleavages and racial hatreds that produce so much economic suffering, political persecution and social exclusion are bound to turn refugees' eyes towards countries like Canada. We cannot admit all the world's refugees, of course, but we can - and we must - do a better job of taking leadership with other like-minded countries to show compassion to refugees and address the root problems of why the number of refugees is growing. In short, Canadians have got to stop being afraid of refugees and visible minorities and recognize that Canada's future lies in a better inter-relationship with the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the world's six billion people. We need to look outward and stop navel-gazing so much.

The most dramatic example of growing danger is the widening gap between the rich and poor. The North, containing a fifth of the world population, controls 80 percent of the wealth and resources; the South, with four-fifths of world population has only 20 percent of the wealth and resources. This is not only unjust: it is a threat to the stability of the planet.

As the stress on the ecosphere worsens - brought about by a combination of large populations and poverty in the South and over-consumption and pollution in the North - the demand of marginalized peoples for their place in the sun will grow.

There might not be enough of everything needed to sustain Western lifestyles - land, resources, wealth. Who knows what might happen? All the problems surrounding the basic needs of humans on a planet with definable limitations of growth are only getting worse. The turbulence of today could become the gales of tomorrow. In the face of pressures bound only to increase in the 21st century - pressures of the poor and homeless demanding resources and space, pressures of regional disputes over scarce commodities (of which fresh water will likely be at the head of the list), pressures growing out of the resentment against the white, Christian West for hogging the lion's share of the world's benefits (an imbalance made ever more visible through the exploding communications revolution), pressures from the ambitious military of the South - the intolerant forces will stand their ground.

It is the determination of the strong to maintain their position by whatever means necessary, whether military, financial, or political, that is the basis for the systemic inequality in the world. A commitment to equity in the world is the only secure foundation for a more humane world order. Nations must work together to blunt current disparities and improve global stability. A continuation of the unjust status quo will inevitably lead to massive conflict in the decades ahead.

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Fortunately, a new trend line of history gives us hope that the human family can move beyond the worst forms of racism. There is a new political recognition that respect for human rights is essential to the sustainable achievement of peace, development, and democracy.

In the past half-century, since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a vast range of vulnerable groups have been brought under the protection of human rights laws and new standards. Centuries-old patterns of discrimination and oppression have been broken. The extension of democracy to a great proportion of the world's peoples is a product of the extension of human rights. Apartheid is a thing of the past, and the decolonization process is nearly complete. A permanent International Criminal Court to prosecute those who perpetuate genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity is coming into existence.

The subjects of rights have been clearly defined: rights of stateless persons, refugees, women, children, disabled persons, persons with mental illness, prisoners, migrant workers, and indigenous peoples. The areas of protection have become increasingly precise: punishment of genocide, abolition of slavery, efforts to combat torture and to eliminate all forms of discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or belief. These aspirations, launched in the minds of men and women throughout the world - even if yet not fully reached - are perhaps the most powerful and inspirational force in modern history.

The development of the universality of human rights has reached a point where it is less urgent to define new rights than to persuade governments to adopt existing instruments and apply them effectively. There is now general acceptance of the importance of eliminating economic deprivation and recognition of social responsibility in this area. However grievous the violations still are, the newly understood idea of equality, as spelled out in the human rights declaration and covenants, is a keystone of the 21st century agenda for peace and security.

The idea that a "clash of civilizations" is inevitable because of fundamentally different interpretations of rights should be discarded. It leads to an intellectual and political closure that ignores the fact that people everywhere want the same things: food, water, healthy conditions, and an opportunity to develop their own lives. Modern conflict comes less from cultural mores and more from deprivation of these inherent desires and basic human needs. In short, the recognition of universal human rights gives the world common ground to stand on. It creates a basis of cooperation over the individual self-interest of States.

These human rights developments are laying the groundwork for a "culture of peace," as defined by the U.N.

Canadians may not yet have fully mastered how to share life together with those of different cultures. But we are learning and certainly those of visible minorities in our midst have an important role to play in teaching by example.

Respect for all cultures whose values are tolerant of others and which subscribe to a global ethic should be a basic principle. Respect goes beyond tolerance. It implies a positive attitude to other people and rejoicing at the different traditions amongst us.