Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I also thank the committee for its interest in this very important issue.
As you have said, my name is Micheline Aucoin and I am the Director General of the Refugees Branch at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).
I am joined by Bruce Scoffield, Director of Operational Coordination in the International Region of CIC; Catherine Godin, Director of the Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response Group, from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT); and Françoise Ducros, Director General, Europe, Middle East and Maghreb, from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
Together we will be happy to take your questions at the end of the presentation.
The Government of Canada continually monitors refugee conditions around the world, including the latest developments in Iraq, in consultation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Canada appreciates the gravity of the situation in Iraq and is very concerned for the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have left Iraq for neighbouring countries, as well as the 2.4 million others displaced within the country.
CIC's field staff, who are in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have regular contact on the ground with refugees, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and officials from other resettlement countries. They have witnesses the evolution of the refugee situation first-hand, and have been reporting their findings back to CIC national headquarters on a regular basis.
Earlier in the conflict, the UNHCR and the international community expected the displacement to be temporary, and that Iraqis could return home, in the foreseeable future, from neighbouring countries providing protection.
As time went by, the protection environment in the countries of first asylum deteriorated and by late 2006 the UNHCR began identifying the most vulnerable in the population and those in need of resettlement to a third country.
Discussions between CIC and UNHCR officials, both in the region and in Geneva, have been ongoing on the role that resettlement could play in this declining protection environment.
In addition, senior CIC officials travelled to Syria, Jordan and Turkey earlier this year to discuss with the UNHCR and NGOs how Canada's resettlement program could best support the UNHCR's resettlement strategy.
We have been working within our legislative, policy and budgetary frameworks to assist Iraqis displaced by the situation, and to help them resettle in Canada as refugees or, when appropriate, to enter under other immigrant categories.
Given the severity of the situation, and in an effort to speed up the process, Canada agreed to accept simplified UNHCR referral procedures for the majority of Iraqi refugees. Canadian visa officers overseas continue to assess all refugees referred on a case-by-case basis, to ensure the applicant meets all legislative and security requirements, and to be sure that the settlement to Canada is, indeed, the best and most logical choice for the individual and his or her family.
In addition, members of this committee will have heard the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration recently announce measures to assist families affected by the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. She has instructed CIC to give priority immigration services to Iraqis and those from Iraq in surrounding countries who have close family members in Canada.
Our visa office in Damascus is giving priority to applications for permanent residence under the family class. This measure already applies to spouses and common-law and conjugal partners, as well as dependent children, and has now been extended to parents, grandparents, and other orphaned family members from Iraq sponsored by Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
In addition, our case processing centre in Mississauga will examine the eligibility of Canadian citizens and permanent residents on a priority basis to sponsor Iraqis affected by the war.
Mr. Chair, our efforts in Iraq are not new. Canada has an active resettlement program for Iraqi refugees who have sought asylum in neighbouring countries. Through our refugee resettlement program, Canada resettled almost 3,000 Iraqis between 2002 and 2006.
In 2007, CIC's resettlement target in the Middle East was 2,140, including 1,150 government-assisted refugees, GARs, and 990 privately sponsored refugees, PSRs.
In response to an appeal to assist those countries currently hosting Iraqi refugees, Canada announced last April that it would accept up to 500 additional Iraqi refugee referrals this year from the UNHCR.
We expect more than 2,000 Iraqis will have arrived in Canada by the end of this year. This number includes Iraqis who have applied as family class, refugees, and skilled workers.
In response to the situation unfolding in Iraq, we are significantly increasing our 2008 resettlement target for the Middle East to 3,350 people, of whom 2,080 are GARs and 1,270 are PSRs. We will be allocating almost 30% of our total resettlement places available to Iraqi and other refugees displaced by the war.
Given the magnitude of the displacement and its impact on neighbouring countries, it is important that the international community participate in resettlement efforts. CIC will continue to work with the international community to find long-term solutions for refugees.
At the same time, it should be noted that Canada operates a global resettlement program that in 2006 alone resettled refugees from more than 70 nationalities. And with a total of 100,000 resettlement spots available throughout the world, resettlement can be a solution for only a small fraction of the refugees. We welcome this committee's thoughts on additional steps Canada might take to find solutions to this and other refugee situations.
Of course, resettlement is not the only way Canada can provide assistance to Iraqi refugees. CIDA is active in the region, providing reconstruction and humanitarian assistance and responding to appeals by organizations such as the UNHCR.
We will continue to monitor this situation closely and we will explore more options to further meet UNHCR resettlement needs with respect to Iraqis in 2008 and beyond.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. We are happy to take your questions now.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I certainly welcome the opportunity to be here today.
It is fitting, and I suppose tragically and ironically so, that we are here on the day following International Human Rights Day, which yesterday marked the 59th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, the very sad truth is that in the face of the ongoing and widespread violence that has devastated Iraq over the past four and a half years, a staggering crisis of displacement has been unleashed, a crisis that has resulted in massive violations of many of the rights enshrined in that declaration.
The numbers, and I know you know them, are overwhelming: approximately 4.2 million Iraqis displaced, 2.2 million of them within Iraq itself; at least 2 million more in neighbouring countries, the majority in Syria and Jordan. At the very least, 1.4 million Iraqi refugees are in Syria. Some reports suggest that by the end of September that number may have climbed as high as 2 million, and anywhere between 500,000 and 750,000 in Jordan.
Syria and Jordan certainly carry the bulk of the burden but are not entirely alone. There are, for instance, some 50,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, where there are growing concerns that many are being arrested and imprisoned when found to be in the country without lawful status.
Just to give us all a sense of proportion, that equals approximately 7% of the population of Syria and 10% of the population of Jordan. That would be equal to Canada hosting between 2.2 million and 3.3 million refugees ourselves.
Syria has now taken action to curtail the flow of refugees. On September 10, Syria imposed a visa requirement on Iraqis. Following that change, the number of Iraqi refugees crossing the border into Syria dropped from about 2,000 per day to only 100 per day more recently.
The willingness of Syria and Jordan to receive such an influx of refugees is highly commendable and stands, sadly, in sharp contrast to other of Iraq's neighbours. Notably, Saudi Arabia has maintained a closed border to Iraqi refugees and has announced plans to build a wall along the border. Saudi security forces are deployed along the border in order to intercept those trying to cross.
Who are the refugees? There is a disproportionately high number of non-Muslim religious minorities in the refugee population, including Christians and members of the Sabean/Mandaean faith. There are large numbers as well of Sunni Muslims who have fled from predominantly Shi'a neighbourhoods in Baghdad. It is crucial not to forget the plight of Palestinian refugees from Iraq, who have been relentlessly targeted in the fighting and in human rights abuses in the country. Some 15,000 Palestinians remain in Iraq, about 2,000 of whom are living in desperate conditions in makeshift camps in the border region between Iraq and Syria.
My colleagues, Amnesty International researchers, have travelled to Syria and Jordan three times this year to carry out research and conduct numerous interviews with Iraqi refugees. Their stories of violence and human rights violations that forced them to flee Iraq are heart-wrenching. Here are two very short examples.
AA, a 45-year-old shop owner was abducted by armed men in civilian clothes on November 23, 2006. During the four days of his abduction, he suffered various forms of torture. These included being beaten with a cable and a stick on various parts of his body, having electric shocks applied to his ears, and having holes drilled into his right leg. His back was also cut with a knife dozens of times. Those scars were still visible when Amnesty International delegates met with him about seven months after the incident.
In October 2005, four masked and armed men forced their way into the house of a Sabean/Mandaean family in Baghdad. The children and father were beaten and shackled, and their mother, who was five months pregnant, was forced into another room. There, one of the men kicked her in the abdomen and burned her left arm with a cigarette, and then raped her. The man knew she was Sabean/Mandaean and said that he wanted her to lose the baby. She lost consciousness. When she awoke, she was in the hospital and learned that her pregnancy had been terminated because of injuries suffered during the attack. The family fled to Syria. Twenty months later, when Amnesty International researchers met her, she was still receiving frequent medical treatment and the burns on her arm were still visible.
Those are just two stories among countless others.
What of the challenges and hardship that continue for refugees once they have reached safety in neighbouring countries? Certainly one very serious challenge relates to entry and legal status.
Until the end of 2006, Iraqis entering Syria received a three-month visa, which could be extended for three months at any Syrian passport office. At the beginning of this year, that changed to a one-month visa upon entry, renewable for two months. Refugees must thereafter leave the country and re-enter, obtaining once again a one-month visa, starting the process all over again. A vast majority of refugees do not do this, fearful, understandably, of what would happen to them if they returned even briefly to Iraq. They choose instead to remain in Syria without status.
In Jordan there is not yet a visa requirement, but that is imminently expected to change. Under Jordanian law, only Iraqis with Jordanian residency, or a limited number of other exceptions, are permitted to enter the country. As a result, again, the vast majority of Iraqis in Jordan are without status; they face the constant risk of arrest and deportation and live in endless fear of that happening.
Second, there are forced returns to Iraq. Syrian officials have acknowledged to Amnesty International that a number of Iraqis have been forced back to Iraq, apparently primarily because of having committed criminal acts. Through our research, though, we're concerned that many Iraqis have been forced back to Iraq when they have found themselves in a situation of disagreement, for instance, with an employer, a co-worker, a landlord, or other Syrian nationals. We have also documented a widespread practice of Syrian officials forcing Iraqis to pay bribes when they are found without a valid residency permit.
There have been forced returns of Iraqis from Jordan as well. There is a disturbing report of a group of six or seven Iraqis forcibly returned from the Treibeel border crossing between Iraq and Jordan in December 2006. Their vehicle was then reportedly stopped by insurgents, who then beheaded all but one of the occupants.
A third concern is access to food, housing, and employment. When Iraqis enter Syria, their passports are stamped, banning them from employment. A growing number of charities and UN agencies do provide assistance, but many refugee families have described to Amnesty that they've gone without food aid for lengthy periods. Most, therefore, do take paid work illegally and have become a very cheap workforce for employers.
There is also concern in both Syria and Jordan that a growing number of Iraqi women and girls are becoming involved in the sex trade. Some Iraqi girls have been forced to engage in prostitution by their families as a way of meeting daily needs.
Then there is education. There are apparently no restrictions against Iraqi children attending school in Syria, but only 70,000 at most do so. That is exceptionally low, given the high number of Iraqi children in the country. Part of the problem may be facilities; existing school facilities are overcrowded. UNHCR is building six new schools in Damascus. The Syrian government estimates that at least 91 new schools are needed.
In Jordan, access to education has been very restricted. That changed about three months ago with an announcement that Iraqi refugee children could attend public schools. Some 25,000 have now registered, but even with the new facilities in Syria and the greater access in Jordan, it is expected that the vast majority of Iraqi children will not end up going to school. The fear within families that this will lead to arrest and deportation is simply far too strong. UNHCR and numerous agencies have begun raising the alarm, therefore, about the prospect of hundreds of thousands of marginalized Iraqi refugee children growing up without education.
Next is the international response.The bottom line is that this crisis has far surpassed the ability of regional neighbours to cope. UN agencies are strained beyond capacity as well, and the wider response of the international community, including Canada, to a humanitarian crisis that was, after all, provoked by an international armed conflict has been, to say the least, woefully and shamefully inadequate.
The UNHCR's funding appeal has been reasonably well supported, although shortfalls remain. It's important to note, though, that only a small percentage of refugees have registered with the UNHCR in Syria and Jordan and will therefore benefit from that aid. Only 125,000 in Syria, for instance, have registered; that's only 10% of the estimated refugee population.
Syria and Jordan have estimated that the cost to those governments of providing proper protection and services for the refugee populations they shelter approaches $1 billion in each country. Both countries have received very little financial aid--in fact, next to nothing.
Beyond money, there is, of course, the growing concern about the failure of governments outside the region to assist through resettlement opportunities for refugees in need of that option. Resettlement will, admittedly, be required or appropriate for only a small percentage of refugees in a crisis of this sort. Most are not interested in resettlement. What they want is to be able to go home. But even given the limited but critically important role that resettlement plays in refugee protection, the numbers for resettled Iraqis are appallingly low, and until recently they were actually diminishing rather than increasing.
The UNHCR, for instance, reported that 1,425 Iraqis referred by UNHCR for resettlement were accepted in 2003, and that number had shrunk to only 404 in 2006. My colleagues from the Canadian Council for Refugees will talk to you more about Canada's role.
Lastly, let me say a very brief word about the third aspect of the world's response to refugees from Iraq. I've talked about money. I've talked about resettlement. What about the treatment afforded to Iraqis who make it to Europe and North America and make refugee claims on their own in those countries?
The response has hardly been more generous. While Iraqi refugees in Canada do benefit from a moratorium on deportation to Iraq, others in other countries are not so fortunate. Many European states, including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, have returned Iraqis to northern Iraq and even, in occasional cases, to southern and central Iraq.
So what is needed?
Clearly there is a dramatic and very urgent need for a comprehensive global human rights action plan for Iraqi refugees, a plan that ensures the following: 1) that multilateral and NGO efforts to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced Iraqis receive adequate and sustained funding; 2) that front-line states, particularly Syria and Jordan, are provided with the financial support needed to ensure they can provide the level of protection and assistance required; 3) that more generous opportunities for resettlement become available so that vulnerable Iraqis who are not safe or adequately protected in the region can move to other countries; and 4) that there is a common commitment from all countries in the region and around the world to refrain from forced returns to Iraq.
Canada can and should play a lead role in ensuring that an action plan of this nature is adopted as early as possible.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
My name is Liz McWeeny, and I am president of the Canadian Council for Refugees. I have 25 years involvement with the Canadian humanitarian resettlement program, including the private sponsorship program.
The CCR is an umbrella coalition of over 180 member organizations committed to working for refugee rights and refugee protection both in Canada and abroad. We have been deeply concerned for some time with the dreadful plight of the Iraqi people who have fled Iraq to neighbouring countries and those still stuck in the border areas of Syria and Jordan.
In September and October of this year, I attended the annual UNHCR NGO consultations in Geneva and was also present during the UNHCR executive committee meetings where the crisis in Iraq was the subject of many discussions.
The scale of the crisis affecting millions of Iraqi people is beyond anything we have witnessed for a very long time, and it's currently the largest forced displacement of urban refugees anywhere. Please note that these are, for the most part, urban refugees, and the predominant majority are not in camps.
It threatens the stability of the host countries, especially Syria and Jordan, whose populations have increased by more than 2.2 million. The huge number of refugees places an enormous strain on the hosting countries and therefore on the entire region. Imagine, if you will, a city the size of Montreal receiving a population of refugees of over a million people. This is the situation in Damascus.
At that same set of international meetings in Geneva, it became apparent that no single answer will be sufficient and that a comprehensive global response that reflects the magnitude of the problem is required in order to avoid a huge humanitarian disaster. So far, the international community's engagement has been quite generous, but insufficient to come anywhere close to meeting the needs.
Most recently, and in consultation with the members of the Iraqi Canadian community, we have developed a document called “Iraqi Refugee Crisis: Call for Increased Canadian Response”. You have a copy of this before you today.
It provides a framework for a series of made-in-Canada initiatives that engage both government and civil society. I call your attention particularly to points 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8, which speak to the need for additional resettlement places as a means to protect the most vulnerable, as well as encouragement to Syria and Jordan to maintain their asylum space.
Canada has an excellent reputation in the international community, especially in relation to refugee issues, a reputation of which we can be justly proud. Other states highly respect our leadership in international responsibility sharing, and this crisis for Iraqis should be no exception.
The Canadian people have always played an important role in Canada's response to refugees, and we are here today to tell you that we are receiving a strong message from the grassroots about the strong desire of Canadians in many parts of Canada to contribute to a generous response to Iraqi refugees.
The CCR urges you, in the strongest possible terms, to consider implementing the strategy before you. Through our generosity in our domestic and international initiatives, Canada could and should, by example, lead the other states and have them be confident to step up to the plate.
I now invite my colleague, Glynis Williams, to share with you her experiences and provide some more information.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.
We want to address this committee on the tragic situation of Iraqi refugees. For over 20 years I have worked in this private sponsorship of refugees program and also with asylum seekers here in Canada.
The organization where I work, Action Réfugiés Montréal, is an active member of the Canadian Council for Refugees. Between March and July of this year, I was on a deployment with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Damascus, Syria. The work was primarily interviewing Iraqi refugees being considered for resettlement and completing the resettlement forms for Canada, the United States, and other resettlement countries. During that time, I interviewed almost 100 families or individuals, for a total of 300-plus people.
As committee members, you will no doubt become numb to hearing and reading about the staggering numbers of Iraqi people in flight, and particularly the situations they have fled, but statistics do not tell of the enormous suffering that too many have endured. What I can share today is what I heard in the interview room from which emerged consistent stories of both targeted and generalized violence. A number of people have been in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria for many years already. It's hard to realize that some people have been sitting for five years already, waiting for us to wake up to this calamity. The UNHCR and governments kept hoping that the conditions would improve and that people could eventually return home. In this time, very little has been offered in terms of material support, and resettlement, as you've already heard, has been very minimal.
During the spring of this year, 2,000 people a day were crossing into Syria, and most of them were coming to Damascus. Except for Palestinians, there are no refugee camps, meaning that the regular infrastructure must absorb all these new arrivals. It's a staggering challenge for a developed nation, and it's overwhelming for a poor country. When you consider that most of these people are seriously traumatized from the experiences that have forced them to leave Iraq, it compounds the difficulty.
I'm just going to make some observations on the people I spoke with.
Iraqis living in Syria and Jordan are forbidden to work, even if they could find employment, so most have been living for years on savings that are now vanishing. There is evidence that extreme poverty is forcing some women and young girls into prostitution and other kinds of exploitation. Young kids are forced to work for very little money. Men are afraid of being picked up by the police and deported if they're stopped on the street or found working illegally, so they are forced to send their children instead.
This is so counterintuitive, but there are Iraqis inside Iraq who are sending money to sustain family members living in neighbouring countries of asylum, and they often are staying within Iraq risking their own lives.
Iraqis place a very high value on education, sometimes even leaving children behind temporarily inside Iraq in order to sit final-year exams. UNHCR, as you've already heard, has launched a financial appeal to encourage and assist children to go to school. Perhaps we will see more kids in school, but the same issues remain about vulnerabilities of being detected and deported.
A report was done by World Vision on Iraqi refugee children living in Jordan, and it showed that 39% have been the victims of violence themselves, or they have witnessed it in their immediate family. Going to school is therapeutic for kids. It adds routine and normalcy in their young lives. It's essential that this education be supported.
The closing of the borders of Syria and Jordan effectively imprisons people inside Iraq, those who want to flee. Syria and Jordan have done this as a result of the inadequate support they have received from the international community.
Of the 90,000 Iraqis who were registered with the UNHCR in Syria when I left in July, 10,000--and I repeat, 10,000--had cancer. Too many of those 10,000 are kids. I've come to believe that the only thing worse than being a refugee is being a refugee with medical needs.
Kidnappings for ransom are a growth industry, with enormous sums of money demanded. Even if the ransom is paid, the child or the adult might still be killed. One child told us that he was held with 10 other kids in a room, all of them blindfolded and bound. Kidnapping can last for hours to weeks. Some victims are killed. Some bodies are never returned.
As Alex Neve has just reported in one of his moving stories, the violence inflicted on people is absolutely horrendous. The electric drill is the signature of one of the militias. That's what the holes were in the right leg of that gentleman he spoke about.
Minority religious groups, namely Christians, Mandaeans, Sabeans, Yazidis, and Palestinians have particular vulnerabilities, and there are very few safe places left within Iraq for them to flee.
The refugee camps where Palestinians are held in border regions are unsafe and the conditions inhumane. Seven people have died in the Al Waleed camp in the past 18 months, with two children dying in the last couple of weeks. One child died of rickets, a vitamin deficiency. This situation for Palestinians is desperate.
Canada can do so much more. The CCR urges members of this committee to implement the suggestions outlined in our call for an increased response to the Iraqi crisis. It is time for us to take action, and we thank you for this opportunity to share.
Canada has a strong tradition of providing assistance to refugees and we should continue to do so. By the same token, we have to look carefully at the scope and the cost of the assistance we are providing and determine how we can apply our resources in the most effective manner.
Therefore, before I make specific recommendations on how we might assist Iraqi refugees, I want to have a brief look at the overall picture of what we do for refugees. A significant part of what we spend in this area goes to resettling in Canada about 10,000 people a year from overseas, in most cases with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, particularly in the selection process. Far more resources, however, are used in the processing and support of people who arrive in Canada and make refugee claims.
John Manion, a senior and distinguished public servant, who held the post of deputy minister of immigration, secretary of the Treasury Board, and associate clerk of the Privy Council, and should therefore know what he's talking about, testified before a Senate committee in 2001 that he thought the refugee system was using up a major part of the $4 billion he estimated the Canadian government was spending annually on immigration and refugee programs. All together on those we resettle from abroad and those who are successful in making refugee claims in Canada—and there were about 32,000 in 2006, and that's not counting another 10,000 let in under humanitarian or compassionate grounds—we probably spend about 98% or 99% of all the money we spend on refugees around the world.
There are, however, hundreds of times as many refugees, internally displaced persons, and other persons of concern to the UNHCR who are overseas. In 2006 these numbered over 30 million, including 9.9 million refugees and 12.8 million internally displaced persons. Yet Canada contributed, I believe, less than $40 million a year in 2006 to take care of them. That comes to less than $2 a person. You may ask why there is such an imbalance. Why do we spend so much on the relatively small proportion we bring to Canada or who make successful refugee claims here, and why do we contribute so little to the many millions in refugee camps overseas? There are probably a number of factors; I'll mention two.
One is that as refugee support groups develop and evolve, many of them shape their existence around helping refugees to settle in Canada. Quite a bit of research has been done on this in the United States but not in Canada. There was an interesting paper in 1999 called “Show Me the Money”, put out by the Centre for Immigration Studies. It describes how non-governmental organizations in the United States begin by providing services on a voluntary basis to help in the resettlement of relative refugees. Then, particularly after the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act in the U.S., the government there began providing funding to these organizations, and they in turn began lobbying the government to bring in larger numbers of refugees from overseas to ensure a steady intake of such refugees in order to justify the money the non-governmental organizations were receiving and to be able to retain the staff they'd hire. The situation in the U.S. is probably roughly comparable to that in Canada.
Originally, when we began taking refugees in large numbers after World War II, we basically responded to specific crises. An example was the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, and there were also the South Asians who had to leave Uganda in the early 1970s. But then we eventually established annual targets for refugees settled in Canada, whether or not there were any particular crises taking place. This was no doubt welcomed by refugee agencies that wanted to be assured of continuity and predictability in government funding. This explains why many organizations that are by no means opposed to helping refugees overseas have an obvious interest in saying that significant numbers are resettled in Canada.
Another consideration that probably plays a role in the disproportionate amount of money we spend on refugees in Canada is that it is always satisfying to see and get to know first-hand those we are helping. This is an understandable reason from a humanitarian point of view, but it is nevertheless neither reasonable nor fair that we spend such very large amounts on a relatively small proportion of those who need help and so little in relative terms to the vast numbers overseas.
I'd like to make a number of proposals. One is that we provide most of our assistance to Iraqi refugees, to those in bordering countries such as Jordan and Syria as well as to IDP, internally displaced persons, in Iraq deemed by the UNHCR to need assistance. Dollar for dollar, our money will be much better spent among the many than among a relatively small proportion who might be resettled in Canada.
Second, those we bring here--I believe we've already agreed to take 1,400--should be included within the government's annual targeted ranges, which for 2008 are 7,300 to 7,500 government-assisted and 3,300 to 4,500 privately sponsored refugees to be settled from abroad. As I mentioned, the annual targets were instituted to provide a degree of continuity and predictability for planning purposes.
There is no reason, however, that the number of refugees we do resettle from Iraq should be over and above the announced target ranges. I recommend they be included within them. Those we do bring in here should have a strong case for being resettled as convention refugees, as well as for having a reasonably good chance for succeeding in Canada. If they have relatives here, they're obviously going to get more help in resettling, but we shouldn't bring them here simply as a means of circumventing normal immigration requirements; they should have a well-founded case for being seriously at risk on convention refugee grounds.
Our final recommendation is in terms of whom we select. We should exercise particular care when it comes to choosing those considered to be among the most vulnerable. It's very appealing from the humanitarian point of view to give priority to the most vulnerable, but if we bring them here, it's important that they have a reasonable chance of success. Unfortunately, many of the most vulnerable who are brought to western countries have major problems. I think if we want to put priority on them, we should find ways of helping them where we are, not putting them into a very difficult situation in Canada.
In summarizing these points, I recommend, first, that we contribute a significant amount of money to the UNHCR specifically for the care of Iraqi refugees and other persons of concern in the area, and that we not consider resettling in Canada a number significantly above our targeted ranges.
I have some final points.
I think it's necessary to point out that Canada has nothing to apologize for when it comes to the level of assistance we provide to refugees and refugee claimants. Sometimes we're told by refugee advocates we're not doing enough to help refugees, but the facts suggest otherwise: in terms of bringing refugees in from abroad in 2006, we took 10,700 out of the 71,700 resettled from overseas by 16 western countries, which on a per capita basis is three times our share.
With regard to granting refugee status to asylum-seekers in Canada, Canada has not only by far the highest acceptance rates in the world, but in terms of numbers, on a per capita basis we take in four to five times the average of other western countries for permanent resettlement. We also have arguably more generous resettlement terms than any refugee-receiving country for permanent resettlement. If we're not giving enough to the UNHCR to help refugees in camps overseas, we are certainly spending far too much on a dysfunctional refugee system for dealing with asylum-seekers here.
Regrettably, though, instead of trying to reform that system, very often refugee activists are lobbying to make it even more porous. If they're successful, for example, in having the Canada-U.S safe third country agreement with the United States declared null and void, we can expect an even greater influx of refugee claimants into Canada, accompanied by major increases in expenditures by various levels of government. While we're told that the safe third country agreement has severely restricted access of asylum-seekers to the refugee determination system, the number of such applicants actually increased from 19,737 in 2005 to 22,868 in 2006. The total number of refugees admitted from overseas, as well as those who made successful asylum claims in Canada in 2006, was one of the highest in the past decade. The safe third country agreement needs to be strengthened, not done away with.
There is just one final point. Recently we had a major influx of refugee claimants from Mexico. It's a clear indication that we don't have control over who comes in here. In the first half of this year, we had over 3,000 refugee claimants from Mexico; that's four times the number of nationals of any other countries who made such claims, and it constituted more than two-thirds of all the claims made by Mexicans around the world. The only country, in fact, where Mexicans were even considered as refugee claimants was the United States, and they only made half as many claims there.
There's no reason why our refugee system should be flooded and clogged by claimants from Mexico. We should have safe country of origin and safe third country provisions, as other countries do.
If we spent only a small fraction of the hundreds of millions, probably billions, we expend on processing and supporting refugee claimants, many if not most of whom would not even be allowed to make claims in other countries, we'd have more than enough money available for a very generous increase in our contribution through the UNHCR to assist Iraqi refugees.
In the circumstances, what we should be doing, therefore, is not only looking at how we can best help Iraqi refugees, but how the money we spend on refugees is being used.
Thank you very much. I'll try to be fairly quick because I realize time is running short.
I want to thank the committee for inviting me to come here this afternoon. I've spent most of my public service career dealing with refugee issues of one sort or another. I go back, Mr. Telegdi will be interested to know, to the Hungarian refugee movement--I used to be in Toronto trying to help them get settled--to the Czech refugee movement, and all through the Ugandans, the Chileans, the Indochinese. I've learned through this long career that refugee policy, particularly, is a sensitive and very complex issue. It requires a lot of thought.
For example, you had asked, if these people appear, why aren't they simply accepted as refugees? Most of the Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria are not considered by the UNHCR as refugees as such. Because they are fleeing armed conflict does not make them a refugee under the UN convention, and rather than make individual decisions, the UN simply offers them temporary protection because they're fleeing armed conflict. They treat them the same as refugees and they treat them as people of UNHCR concern, but the specialists will tell you there's a difference between a convention refugee and people who flee armed conflict or earthquakes or natural disasters. You have to prove individually that if you were returned, you would be persecuted.
We, Canada, have to cooperate fully with UNHCR policy, and their policy is pretty clear. Their first priority is to try to repatriate the refugees or the people of concern who get out from refugee-like situations. So the UNHCR will not be anxious for large numbers of Iraqis to be brought out of Jordan and Syria for resettlement. They will hope to repatriate them to Iraq. Even today, as you know, there are busloads of Iraqis being returned to Iraq, and the Iraqi government is encouraging them to return to those areas where there is peace.
The second priority of the UNHCR, if they can't return them to their home country, is to resettle them in the countries of first asylum in the regions from which they have escaped. In other words, if they can't send them back to Iraq, they would prefer to see them resettle somehow in the neighbouring countries.
The third, final, and last resort is resettlement in third countries. It's not a preferred solution of the UNHCR for countries to go into Syria and Jordan and take out very large numbers of Iraqis. There's a long story behind that, but it stems from the Indochinese movement, when many countries took large numbers of Indochinese refugees. They did so, and as a result of that, more and more boat people left Vietnam under hazardous conditions, many of them drowning, because they knew if they got out to Thailand or Hong Kong, they'd get a free trip to New York or Ottawa. So there was an international meeting to advise countries to be very careful about third country resettlement.
From the end of the Second World War right up to 1985, Canada did not consider itself a country of first asylum, so we concentrated all our efforts in being a country of resettlement. We saw our role as going to the countries of first asylum and sharing the burden by taking the refugees out of their camps and bringing them to Canada for resettlement, and we did an excellent job on that. Indeed, in 1986, we got the Nansen Medal from the United Nations for our efforts.
By 1985, however, we started to become a country of first asylum ourselves, and as a result of that, we can no longer do both. We can't become a country of resettlement and a country of first asylum. If you look at our last-year figures on the number of refugees we received here, the government brought in about 7,416 refugees from camps abroad. There were an additional 2,976 privately sponsored refugees, but 19,935 were asylum seekers who had been found to be refugees.
I have one final point. It's a question of cost. It's very difficult to get an estimate of the costs of the asylum-seekers in Canada, but I estimate it to be around $2 billion per annum. Now the budget of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to look after 30-some million refugees or people of concern is half of that.
One final point on Iraq. I have heard that there are U.S. reports that—and the department should be here to hear that—Christian Iraqis are having a very difficult time getting registered with the UNHCR and are therefore referred on to immigrant countries that might take them, like Canada. The problem is that the locally engaged staff working out of the embassies in Amman and in Damascus are not favourably disposed to letting the Christians who are fleeing register with UNHCR. That's something the committee might want to look into.