Politicization of Refugees in Canadian Campaigns

Politicization of Refugees in Canadian Campaigns

When the body of a three-year-old Kurdish boy washed up on the shore of Turkey early this September, media all over the world exploded. The boy and his family were killed when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea during a hopeful escape to Greece from their turbulent homeland. The heart wrenching image was used as a testimony to the world’s failure in dealing with the rising Syrian refugee problem. Although geographically far from the region in crisis, Canada, a country traditionally known for its openness to refugees, has been scrutinized both domestically and internationally in regards to this issue for not taking enough Syrian refugees. When reports surfaced  revealing that the young boy’s family applied for refugee status but was very quickly rejected, opponents of Canada’s Conservative government erupted in anger. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was soon portrayed as a large contributing factor to the tragic death of this innocent boy.

With voting day approaching, the opposition took the news as a chance to break down Harper’s campaign. Although it was later revealed by Citizenship and Immigration Canada that the boy’s uncle, and not immediate family, was who had applied for resettlement and rejected due to incomplete documentation, the opposition did not back down from politicizing the issue. The Conservative Party’s Immigration Minister Chris Alexander was bombarded by attacks to the extent that he was forced to take a leave of absence from the campaign. “You don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign,” commented Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau in an attempt to dramatize the tragedy even more.

In fact, after the new election law extended the permitted campaign duration to 78 days, many Canadians found that truthful discussions about the nation’s policy were gradually being replaced with empty words and dramatization that served the interests of the media. Since the Syrian refugee crisis was brought into the spotlight, all opposition parties have attacked Harper’s current and past policies on refugees. Despite the fact that their arguments are supported with statistics, none of the parties’ leaders have made any detailed comments about how to revise the laws. Empty numbers were thrown around and heart-wrenching adjectives were frequently employed. In a tragically laughable way, the desperation of many in need of urgent help has been politicized into a prime time drama in a country that prides itself on leading human rights causes in the world.

Both media and governments have always politicized issues to promote their own interests: media to attract attention, governments to garner support. However, to politicize the despair of others without action has been a first in Canadian campaigns, especially on the issue of refugees. It is very important to note the language used by candidates regarding the current refugee situation in comparison to the words used by NGOs. “Humanitarianism” is rarely heard from the Conservative government, and instead the words “emergency” and “crisis” are repeated over and over. However, opposition candidates frequently employ the phrase “humanitarian mission” or even “obligation” when trying to appeal to voters. According to a study by York University, by framing the situation as “humanitarian,” voters will generally perceive the refugee phenomena as relevant to political identity, community, and world order, or even as an obligation to further promote human rights. However, the word “crisis” implies something completely different. “What is a refugee crisis? Crisis started to be the language used … when it was evident the people coming to our shores on boats weren’t white and weren’t Christian,” immigration lawyer Lee Cohen stated during an interview with the Canadian Press. This play on words generates drastically different images in the voters’ minds, relating Syrian refugees to either fellow humans in dire need of help or as possible threats to national security.

No actual change in government policies or concrete promises from candidates have been made since the tragedy of Syrian refugees appeared in national headlines. Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau stated later in September that he will “immediately accept 25,000 Syrian refugees”. The New Democratic Party followed up later that week stating that its government would be willing to accept 10,000 refugees by the year’s end. Unsurprisingly, the Conservative government rushed in a week later and announced its determination to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. Now it has become a competition of indefinite numbers. Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, spoke last week in regards to the increased politicization that has resulted in little action. He claims the biggest challenge facing the Syrian refugee situation today is “populist politics and toxic public debates, and the climate of fear they engender.” Türk also shed light on the situation’s cause, stating, “This is often fueled and abetted by irresponsible media reporting, lack of political and moral leadership, and xenophobia and racism. All of this suggests that the more fundamental crisis that we are facing today is a crisis of values—the same values that gave birth to the 1951 Refugee Convention in the wake of the atrocities of the Second World War.”

Opposition candidates have blamed the Harper government for doing nothing, even though the Conservatives have already resettled nearly 22,000 Iraqis and 2,300 Syrians, in comparison to the entire European Union agreeing to take only 32,500 refugees voluntarily. It is indeed quite bizarre why no opposition has mentioned the Conservative government’s accomplishments, but instead chosen to dramatize a situation the opposition parties themselves have made no definite promises about. The primary task for the opposition right now, in order to gain more support in the election, should be coming up with means to fix the roots of the refugee crisis. Only when the true problem at hand is not blinded by extreme politicization will Canada be able to make decisions that are best for both its own country and the world.

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