The world has become an increasingly hostile place for refugees fleeing war, persecution and violence. As a consequence of the 9/11 attack on the United States, more countries are making it more difficult for refugees to enter. Borders are being tightened, making it harder to seek asylum.
Developed countries have also heightened screening and reduced the number of refugees they absorb due to fear of terrorism. The United States reduced its maximum refugee intake to 70,000 in 2002, down from 90,000 in 2000 and 142,000 in 1992. The European Union is following suit.
Refugee advocates point to the "third safe country agreement" between Canada and the U.S. as one of the tougher measures meant to reduce refugee claimants. (When landing in Canada or the U.S., a refugee cannot apply for asylum to the other country and phase out the appeal procedure. A rejection is final.)
This Wednesday is World Refugee Day and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees wants to bring attention to the plight and perseverance of millions of men, women and children who are forced to flee their homelands due to insurgency, oppression or persecution.
It is estimated 20 million to 25 million people around the world are victims of forced displacement. Of this figure, 14 million are considered to be conventional refugees who fled their country because they have a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
As a signatory to the Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture, Canada has a legal obligation to refugees on Canadian territory. Each year, Canada accepts thousands of refugees as a part of its commitment to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It works closely with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which was created in 1951 to help in the settlement of 1.2 million European refugees left homeless after the Second World War.
Government estimates indicate that between 1979 and 2001 about 409,526 people came to Canada as refugees. More than 200,000 arrived as government sponsored refugees and over 170,000 were privately sponsored. In 2004, just over 25,000 refugees were accepted in Canada. Most refugees make Ontario their home and Hamilton is one of the top three cities where refugees settle.
Despite a popular belief that our country accepts too many refugees, Canada is not listed among the world's leading destinations for refugees. In fact, the majority are found across national borders near their homeland.
Those who make it to Canada are faced with growing suspicion and are often unfairly labelled as scapegoats for societal ills. Some in our community see them as a drain on the public purse.
"These refugees get everything for free," said one caller on a radio talk show. "As a Canadian, I have less rights than these people who just got off the boat."
And if any newcomers dare complain about the way they are treated, they are immediately told, "Why don't you go back where you came from?"
Every day around the world, people are fleeing their homes and starting over. They are ordinary people trying to escape the daunting circumstances of war and persecution.
Despite the challenges they face, refugees are a courageous group who overcome tremendous odds. They flee hardship in the search for hope through asylum and protection.
World Refugee Day hopes to increase public awareness about refugees and their struggles and the indomitable spirit of survival. We, too, can play a role in debunking myths about refugees.
They are survivors, not victims. They don't need our pity or handouts. They only seek our support and encouragement to help them become contributing members of their new community. On Wednesday, Settlement and Integration Services Organization will host a special breakfast at Liuna Station for World Refugee Day. All are invited.
Freelance columnist Evelyn Myrie lives in Hamilton