Canada’s response to the Global Compact on Refugees: Are we doing enough?

By Idil Atak, Zainab Abu Alrob and Jona Zyfi, Ryerson University

Of the 107,800 refugees resettled in 2019, only 30,100 were welcomed by Canada. Although it is often lauded on the world stage for its resettlement policies, Canada can significantly improve its promotion of comprehensive and effective solutions to forced displacement.

The original version of this blog post was published by The Migration Initiative

By the end of 2019, the number of refugees worldwide reached 26 million and it continues to rise. Today, developing countries, such as Turkey and Uganda, host the vast majority of the world’s refugees. Clearly, robust solutions to the plight of refugees have been limited. Voluntary repatriation to the country of origin has been constrained by the legitimate safety concerns and ongoing political instability in major refugee-producing countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and South Sudan.

Many refugees do not see a future for themselves in first countries of asylum as they face scarce livelihood opportunities and lack access to basic rights. Similarly, the overall number of refugees resettled globally remains alarmingly low. Of the 107,800 refugees resettled in 2019, only 30,100 were welcomed by Canada. Although it is often lauded on the world stage for its resettlement policies, Canada can significantly improve its promotion of comprehensive and effective solutions to forced displacement.

Adopted by the United Nations member states in 2018, the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) has been an important step in the right direction. This legally non-binding instrument sets out a framework of common principles and guidelines to achieve a more equitable sharing of responsibility for supporting refugees globally. The GCR has four specific objectives: i) to ease pressures on host countries, ii) to enhance refugee self-reliance, iii) to expand access to third country solutions, and iv) to support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity. The GCR has been innovative since it urges member states to facilitate refugee participation and forge key partnerships with diverse stakeholders in host communities. Such initiatives are considered instrumental in developing fair, systematic, and complementary pathways for refugee resettlement and empowerment.

Canada plays a major role in the international effort to implement the GCR. For instance, at the inaugural Global Refugee Forum—a follow-up and review mechanism of the GCR commitments—held in Geneva in 2019, Marco Mendicino, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), declared that Canada would expand community sponsorship programs, increase complementary mobility pathways, and introduce innovative refugee streams.

In keeping with this commitment, the Canadian government announced a specific three-point action plan in June 2020. The first action consists of admitting up to 500 refugees by 2022 under the Economic Mobility Pathways Project (EMPP). Encompassing the collaborative efforts of the IRCC, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and two non-profit organizations Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB) and RefugePointthe EMPP involves the participation of provinces and territories to identify skilled refugees with strong economic settlement potential and to assist them in applying to immigrate through the existing economic immigration streams. Second, Canada will support the upcoming launch of a Global Task Force on Refugee Labour Mobility that aspires to share best practices and scale up labour mobility pathways as long-term solutions. Finally, the last part of the action plan calls for the participation of refugees themselves.

This involves including a former refugee as an advisor in Canada’s delegation at international refugee protection meetings. The three-point action plan is Canada’s response to the GCR objectives. To address the goal of expanding third country solutions and enhance refugee self-reliance, Canada intends to magnify the capacity of the EMPP by 2022. Launched in April 2018, the EMPP began as a collaborative pilot project designed to remove common barriers to economic migration, allowing refugees to leave over-burdened host countries in order to work for companies in Canada requiring their skills and talent.

Initially, the project aimed to identify 10-15 skilled refugees who could apply under a federal economic program or Provincial Nominee Program. To date, 22 candidates from Lebanon and Jordan and 13 candidates from Kenya have secured job offers in Canada through the EMPP with the assistance of TBB and RefugePoint respectively. However, as of June 2020, only 15 candidates and their families, from Jordan and Lebanon, have relocated to Canada. The remaining applications are in preparation or pending approval. The partnership’s demonstrated success underscores the importance of complementary pathways for refugee labour mobility.

Refugees selected for the EMPP are considered according to their economic potential and the availability of spaces for resettlement. Although the number of refugees selected remains limited, Canada’s initiative is likely to serve as a model for other member states wishing to connect refugees with employment opportunities and enhance their successful settlement in the host country. It offers an opportunity to highlight refugees’ social and economic contributions to the country, thereby challenging negative discourses directed at them. Canada’s involvement in a Global Task Force on Refugee Labour Mobility is equally welcome. One would hope that this support would translate into a long-term vision in which human rights-based strategic mobility for refugees is championed.

The establishment of the refugee advisory role in Canada’s delegation at international refugee protection meetings is another promising effort. Nevertheless, this ostensibly significant measure falls short of the GCR’s recommendations which call for a broadened inclusion of refugee voices. This past June, a statement on behalf of refugees was presented at the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR), an event that brings together representatives of resettlement states, NGOs, and the UNHCR to strengthen cooperation and collaboration on resettlement. This statement underscored the vital importance of actual refugee involvement in decision-making. It called for a shift to a multipartite model of dialogue which would give refugees status on par with other stakeholders holding a co-chair role. It proposed that by 2022, individuals with lived refugee experiences should comprise at least 20% of participants of the ATCR.

Despite its shortcomings, Canada’s three-point action plan is a welcome development amid the federal government’s decision at the end of March 2020, to pause resettlement programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This pause leaves refugees in camps, detention centres and densely populated living conditions further exacerbating their vulnerability to health and safety risks. As reiterated by some civil society organizations, even prior to the pandemic, resettlement commitments were substantially lower than the targets noted in the Three-Year Strategy on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum.

The action plan presents Canada’s attempt to fulfill the GCR’s objectives and become a leader in promoting sustainable solutions for both refugees and host communities. Accordingly, the Canadian government should resume all resettlement programs while providing appropriate measures to protect public health. By doing so, it should strengthen established partnerships and collaborate with different stakeholders that can support resettlement efforts, respond to the needs of refugees, and promote self-reliance. Finally, if Canada intends to lead by example and deliver on its promise to expand complementary pathways of mobility, it needs to urgently resume the processing of immigration applications from all streams.

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