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Canada and the world can still do much more to tackle forced displacement

By Julia Sanchez      

Despite record-setting numbers, refugees make up less than 0.3 per cent of the global population. The global forced displacement challenge is entirely manageable. What is needed, ultimately, is political will, and a global commitment to concrete action.

A group of Somali women stand near a water point at the Dayniile IDP camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia Photograph courtesy of the United Nations by Tobin Jones
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Imagine running for your life in the middle of the night—maybe packing a few things, but most likely having to leave everything behind.

Nobody chooses to leave their home, their neighbours, friends, and family. Leaving is always a last resort, but for millions it’s the only option they have left. Worldwide, more than 65 million people have been forced from their homes by violence, famine, or natural disaster—the highest number since World War II.

In fact, by the time you finish reading this, one hundred people will have been forced to flee their homes.

Tomorrow, World Refugee Day, is an opportunity for Canadians to consider how we can do more to help; especially in the context of Canada’s new feminist International Assistance Policy, unveiled earlier this month, which focuses on supporting human rights and gender equality for the world’s most vulnerable people.

Refugees and other displaced people deserve a life with dignity and respect for their rights, but many lack access to healthcare, hygiene services, schooling, and employment—necessities that many of us take for granted.

Displaced women and girls have demonstrated incredible resilience, but continue to be at increased risk of violence, exploitation and child, early, and forced marriage, and have little access to the vital health care and protection services they need. Worldwide, 28 million children are out of school due to humanitarian crises, as attacks on education increase.

Despite this adversity, with adequate access to services and opportunity, displaced people can bring long-term benefits to the societies in which they resettle.

With three-quarters of refugees today living not in camps but side-by-side with host communities, the relationship between the two groups is increasingly important.

Governments at all levels play an important role in this regard. When refugees’ legal rights and protections are upheld, and when they have access to labour markets, skills training, social security, and basic services such as health and education, they bring unique benefits to their neighbourhoods, schools, and community organizations.

Canadians have experienced this firsthand.

Irish, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Sri Lankans, Vietnamese, Somalis and others from across the globe have come to Canada as refugees, in search of better lives. Their contributions to our social and economic development has been so substantial that it is hard to imagine a Canada without them.

Despite record-setting numbers, refugees make up less than 0.3 per cent of the global population. The global forced displacement challenge is entirely manageable. What is needed, ultimately, is political will, and a global commitment to concrete action.

Unfortunately, the responsibility for addressing these overlapping challenges is not being shared equitably. About 88 per cent of refugees are hosted in low and middle-income countries, where resources are often already stretched thin and service delivery systems are weak—places like Lebanon, where a quarter of the population is now refugees.

This stands in stark contrast to high-income countries, into which the United Nations Refugee Agency resettled only one per cent of the world’s refugee population in 2015. It is laudable that Canada resettled more than 40,000 Syrian refugees in 2015-16, and the resettlement target for privately sponsored refugees remains higher than previous levels. However, the resettlement target for government-assisted refugees in 2017 is below the annual average in the 1980s.

Responsibility for the world’s displaced people needs to be shared more equitably and sustainably. The Global Compact on Refugees, to be negotiated in the coming months, presents an opportunity to establish a more collaborative and predictable system for meeting the needs and rights of refugees and host communities alike, while promoting inclusive social and economic development.

The Canadian government can play a leading role in the construction of this new international framework. This should include an increased commitment to support refugee resettlement in Canada and elsewhere, alongside measures to ensure the protection of displaced women and children. For example, guarantees for displaced children’s rights to education, women and adolescent girls’ participation in decision-making on all issues that affect them, and measures to uphold displaced women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, should be priorities.

Parliamentarians, policy-makers, and thought leaders also have a role to play. Through open and informed dialogue in Canada and globally—including through the Canada-based World Refugee Council—they can help foster political will and the development of creative solutions to one of humanity’s most important challenges. Canada should continue to be a leader in being an open society at a time of rising backlash against women’s rights, xenophobia, and closing borders.

As we mark World Refugee Day, let us recognize the ways in which refugee-hosting families, communities, and countries are responding to the global forced displacement challenge. And let us also reassert our shared responsibility to demonstrate and grow this spirit of global solidarity.

This op-ed is co-authored by, Gillian Barth, president and CEO of CARE Canada; Jean-Nicolas Beuze, representative of UNHCR Canada; Julie Delahanty, executive director of Oxfam Canada; Patricia Erb, president and CEO of Save the Children; Michael Messenger, president of World Vision Canada; Caroline Riseboro, president and CEO of Plan International Canada; and Louisa Taylor, director of Refugee 613.

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