Beyond Numbers: The Role of Universities in Responding to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Something profound happened on the morning of Sept. 2, 2015.

We had known about the scale of the crisis facing Syrian refugees for well over a year. By the end of August 2015, some 300,000 mainly Syrian refugees had already made the dangerous journey to Europe, with some 2,600 losing their lives in the process.

But then came the photos of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee who had drowned while attempting the crossing from Turkey to Greece. These photos quickly spread around the world and shocked our collective conscience and led to calls for action from governments, including in Canada.

After more than a year of warnings, there is no denying that the needs of Syrian refugees have now captured the public attention. While we can debate how problematic it is that it took something as tragic and as graphic as those photographs to mobilize public opinion, we cannot change the past. What we can do is ask what we should do next, and act quickly.

The past month has seen a sustained public demand for action on the resettlement of Syrian refugees to Canada. The Canadian system is unique in that community organizations and private citizens can apply for permission to sponsor refugees themselves.

It is through this provision that Carleton University resettles two refugee students every year through the Student Refugee Program of World University Service of Canada (WUSC). Student volunteers run the WUSC Local Committee at Carleton, and rely on student levies to provide the resources necessary to sponsor refugees to be resettled to Canada and continue their studies at Carleton. Carleton was the first university to work through this program, which has facilitated the resettlement of more than 1,500 refugees to Canada.

Private sponsorship arose from the groundswell of public demands for a response to the flight of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia following the fall of Saigon in 1975. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, some three million refugees fled to neighboring states, often undertaking perilous journeys by sea to seek asylum. The needs of these refugees were ultimately addressed by the mid-1990s, through collective action by a wide range of actors and the resettlement of some 1.95 million refugees to third countries. Canada’s response earned us international praise.

Today, there is heated debate around how many refugees should be resettled to Canada and how quickly. Should Canada commit to resettling an additional 10,000 or 25,000 refugees? Should we expedite the resettlement of Syrian refugees over other nationalities?

These debates are important. Every additional resettlement opportunity means that another refugee family finds protection and a durable solution.

But resettlement alone is unlikely to respond to the needs of today’s refugees. While there are resettlement opportunities for about 90,000 refugees a year through UNHCR and other channels (Canada accounts for about 10,000 of these opportunities), there are more than 7.2 million refugees in the world today that are eligible for resettlement. That means that at current levels, it would take 80 years to find solutions for the world’s refugees through resettlement alone. Even if resettlement levels were tripled, refugees would be waiting more than 25 years longer for a solution to their plight.

Over the past 60 years, we have learned that the most successful responses to large and complex refugee situations use resettlement as part of a collaborative and comprehensive approach using the collective action of refugee-hosting states, transit states, donor and resettlement countries and a wide range of other actors.

We need a similar response to the Syrian crisis today, not the piece-meal approach we have seen from states until now.

What is the role of universities in such a response? Certainly part of it is increasing their engagement in sponsoring refugees for resettlement. Indeed, in the past month, 11 Canadian universities have offered additional resettlement opportunities through the WUSC Student Refugee Program.

For its part, Carleton University has already raised the funds necessary to bring an additional refugee student to Carleton by January 2016 and has formed a committee to develop a much more robust response to the current crisis and a mechanism for responding more predictably to future crises. This is a start.

A more fundamental role for universities is to provide new ideas on how we can ensure the protection of refugees and find a rights-based solution to their plight while creating a space where these new ideas can be discussed by the global policy community and those actors who must be central to finding a lasting solution.

Universities played a crucial role in encouraging the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees that was ultimately adopted in 1989. Given the political impasses we see domestically and internationally in the development of an effective response, universities can provide expertise and a neutral forum where a range of actors can reach a solution that respects the rights of refugees and the concerns of states.

And we must do this urgently. We have already received one warning too many.

James Milner is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.

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