Refugees from other countries have been ignored while all eyes are on Syria, says a group of Vancouver activists who want to bring attention to the refugee crisis in Eritrea.
Daniel Tseghay, the main organizer of the informal group, says that federal government’s $1.2-billion plan to expedite Syrian refugees highlights the attention paid to some refugees while other international crises have been forgotten.
The group, mostly comprised of youth with roots in Eritrea, is planning a campaign to bring awareness to the situation in their home country.
In Eritrea, tens of thousands have been fleeing the dictatorship’s forced–labour practices and human rights abuses. Despite this, Amnesty International recently reported that asylum applications from Eritrean refugees are increasingly being rejected.
“There obviously is some structure that privileges certain migrants over others and unfortunately, African migrants are at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Vancouver in general is walking in that path right now,” said Tseghay.
The Eritrean crisis also has connections to Vancouver, he said, as mining company Nevsun, which is headquartered in the city, has been accused of using forced labour in Eritrea. (Nevsun has denied the allegations of forced labour in a recent independent report.)
“There are Vancouver mining companies that are in Eritrea. They are a big reason that people are fleeing Eritrea,” Tseghay said. “We’ve got a refugee crisis that is intimately connected with Vancouver.”
Meron Habtom, a member of the group and a student at British Columbia Institute of Technology, said that growing up in Canada he had little awareness of the struggles of people in his home country. He is now committed to bringing attention to the crisis.
“Eritreans are facing some of the worst living conditions in the world, but it’s as if their struggle doesn’t matter,” Habtom said.
All refugee support is needed
But not everyone believes that having the federal government focus on one group of refugees is a bad thing.
Eyob Naizghi, the executive director of the immigrant settlement organization MOSAIC in east Vancouver, welcomes increased support for any refugees.
Naizghi is intimately acquainted with the plight of refugees. As a young man, he escaped from Eritrea and came to Canada through the World University Service of Canada. He now helps immigrants and refugees settle in Vancouver.
Naizghi said that the media’s focus on Syria has drawn attention to the larger story of refugee struggles. The coverage has mobilized people to put pressure on world leaders to act.
“Politicians do tend to react to public outcries,” he said.
Naizghi also mentioned that for years, refugees fleeing many countries have attempted to cross the Mediterranean, and Syrians are now in an especially dire situation.
“The Syrian refugee crisis has been in the making for the last five years, and, in the last two years, the crisis has been exacerbated,” he said.
Canada’s commitment to refugees
Syria is the latest country from which Canada has chosen to expedite large numbers of refugees, usually by providing special assistance in the form of faster processing or flights to Canada. In the early 1980s, Canada accepted 50,000 refugees fleeing Vietnam and, in 1999, accepted 5,000 escaping Kosovo.
Of the approximately 23,000 refugees accepted into Canada in 2014, almost half came through the government-assisted program, most from Iran or Iraq. Eritrean and Syrian refugees are at the top the list of privately sponsored refugees. But the private-sponsorship stream for refugees, in which individual citizens offer to take on the cost of resettlement, accounts for less than 20 per cent of all refugees accepted.
Though Syrians will now be receiving priority, the federal government is still accepting refugees from around the world, said Theodora Jean, of the communications department at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. This includes plans to settle 4,000 Eritreans by 2019.
“Canada is in fact responding to other crises in the world. In addition to the Syrian commitment, Canada has a multi-year resettlement program plan, which includes an additional 3,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of 2015,” Jean said in an email.
Professor Daniel Hiebert, a specialist in international migration at the University of British Columbia, says that there are “no simple answers” to why more refugees from some countries are accepted to Canada and not others.
But he points out that Canadians are able to provide help to refugees from countries that that they think need more support. “There is a degree of choice enabled by the private refugee-sponsorship system,” says Hiebert.