Syrian Refugees Are Canada-Bound

The group of 164 people is part of the new government’s commitment to accept 25,000 refugees by February.

Two Syrian children pose in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday while family members undergo medical screening before the start of an airlift to Canada. (Corporal Darcy Lefebvre / Canadian Forces Combat Camera / Reuters)

A group of 164 Syrian refugees are on their way to Canada, part of the new government’s commitment to accept 25,000 refugees by February from the Arab country that has been engulfed in a nearly five-year-long civil war.

The group left the airport in Beirut—one of two cities in the region (the other being Amman, Jordan) where the Canadian government has set up refugee-processing centers—Thursday on a Canadian government plane, which will stop in Cologne, Germany, before arriving in Toronto later Thursday. A second flight with more refugees is expected to arrive Saturday.

Some 416 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since November 4, but they have come on private aircrafts. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government plans to resettle 25,000 Syrians throughout the country by February. The refugees will be a mix of government- and privately sponsored people. The 164 who left Beirut Thursday were privately sponsored, reported CBC, the Canadian broadcaster. Private groups will support them upon their arrival in Canada, CBC added, though the government will pay for their transportation, initial medical costs, and arrival expenses.

Public opposition to the government’s plan has climbed since last month’s Paris attacks. At least two of the attackers were found to have traveled to Europe using fake Syrian passports, in which there is a large trade because of the relative ease with which Syrians fleeing their civil war are granted asylum in the West—though their journeys themselves are by no means easy, and often deadly. Trudeau’s initial plan was to bring in the 25,000 by the end of this year, but his government has since said it will complete the transfer by the end of the February.

The government’s position was a reversal from the stance taken by Trudeau’s predecessor as prime minister, Stephen Harper, who had declined to accept more Syrian refugees. The matter became an election issue following the death of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, whose body on a Turkish beach has become the defining image of the refugee crisis. The boy had relatives in Canada, and his father claimed Canada had rejected their asylum application.

Critics of the refugee-resettlement plan broadly echo what my colleague David Frum, who is Canadian-born, said in this interview with Sirius XM Canada:

I believe the first duty of governments is to their own people and, when faced with this potential vast influx of people from all over the southern Mediterranean and eastern Mediterranean and Africa, too, and now South Asia—because it’s turning out many of the people claiming to be Syrian are actually from Pakistan—governments have to ask themselves: Are they admitting people who are going to strengthen the country, who are consistent with the country’s national security, who will enhance the welfare of the country? Or are they creating for themselves more of the kind of massive internal security conflicts that Europe has had with its past immigration from the Middle East?

But critics of that position point to the fact Canada has a proud tradition of accepting the world’s asylum-seekers. It has taken in refugees from Kosovo, Uganda, Vietnam, and other places.

The Toronto Star, in a front-page editorial, welcomed Thursday’s impending arrivals:

The debate in Canada over the acceptance of refugees echoes what’s happening in much of the Western world, where the desire to satisfy the humanitarian instinct clashes with concerns over security—especially in the wake of the attacks in Paris and elsewhere, and fears over the dangers the refugees may pose.

The U.S. has accepted slightly more than 1,500 refugees from Syria, and it plans to accept 10,000 more next year.  Those plans have been sharply criticized by several presidential candidates who have called for a halt to the arrival of Syrian refugees, and several states, including Texas and Alabama, that have said they don’t want Syrians resettled there. But as my colleague Matt Ford reported last week: “States lack the constitutional mechanisms to directly bar refugees under current Supreme Court precedent.”

Those debates are also being played out across Europe, even more acrimoniously. The European Union has been dealing with an increased influx of migrants and refugees since the summer. Plans to resettle asylum-seekers across the EU have been fractious. Countries such as Germany and Sweden have welcomed the asylum-seekers while newer members of the bloc, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, have not. Tensions over the issue threaten the bloc’s unity.

“Either Europe stands together and acts with solidarity in times of hardship for hundreds of thousands, or fences and barriers will again be raised,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, said Thursday. “And then the vision of a united Europe crumbles.”