Fr. Endashaw Debrework, Jesuit Refugee Service East Africa director. Photo by Michael Swan

Is racism a factor in backlog of refugees from East Africa?

By 
  • December 11, 2016

While Canada resettled more than 35,000 refugees from Syria over the last 12 months and brought refugee processing times down to eight months for privately sponsored refugees from Lebanon, refugees in Ethiopia languish more than six years in the system and Church groups are discouraged from sponsoring Africans.

“I don’t know whether to say the issue is racism or ignorance or lack of awareness of the diversity of humanity. I very much do not want to say racism,” said Jesuit Refugee Service East Africa director Fr. Endashaw Debrework. “There is a lot of ignorance in the world, especially in the Western world.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada officials declined to answer questions about whether the vast disparity in results affecting black African refugees could be characterized as racist.

It’s not a question of racist government officials or a policy based on racial distinctions, but one of results, said Mosaic Institute executive director Bernie Farber.

“Let’s look at the facts,” said the refugee advocate and expert in Canadian multiculturalism.

Eritrean refugees from East Africa have been drowning for years in the Mediterranean when leaky boats capsize, but it took one picture in 2015 of a drowned, three-year-old Syrian, Alan Kurdi, to elicit a visceral reaction from Canadians. A decade ago Farber helped organize a campaign on behalf of the victims of ethnic cleansing in Sudan’s Darfur region. No matter how many images of starving children and marauding Sudanese soldiers surfaced, Farber’s Green Ribbon campaign could not gain traction.

“Why would that be?” Farber asked. “Could it be that the colour of their skin was black? Yes. What does that say about us? It says way too many things.”

Immigration officials put forth other explanations for the five-year gap in refugee processing times between Lebanon and Ethiopia.

“It is impossible to compare application processing times for the Syrian refugee resettlement initiative to average processing times,” said IRC spokesperson Jennifer Bourque.

Last year’s government pledge to bring 25,000 refugees in roughly 100 days by the end of February was met through massive temporary reassigning of government personnel, who over a few short months processed a pile of applications that normally would have taken years — “an exceptional and time-limited situation which required extraordinary measures,” said Bourque.

The government is not neglecting refugees from other parts of the world, Bourque said. But she concedes that wait times of more than six years are not a model of efficiency.

“We agree that processing times are too long,” she said.

Operating out of a single embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, Canadian visa staff responsible for processing refugees throughout the entire East African region — home to nine million refugees, 26 per cent of the global refugee population — has trouble keeping track of refugees and arranging interviews.

“Interviewing applicants can be complicated by a lack of access (i.e. our staff cannot safely access the refugees), a lack of documentation and difficulties in establishing family relationships,” said Bourque.

In an email, Bourque referenced “security limitations” several times.

The government’s latest “levels plan” sets a target of 40,000 refugees in 2017, 16,000 of them to be sponsored privately.

“We will welcome one of the highest numbers of refugees and protected persons in Canadian history,” Bourque said.

The new targets for refugees are double the 2015 targets set by the previous Conservative government. The emphasis on private sponsorship, most often undertaken by Church groups, “recognizes the significant contribution of Canadians wanting to sponsor refugees,” Bourque said.

While there are always other explanations, Canadians must not be afraid of facing up to the possibility of racial bias, said Farber.

“This seems to be not even in the background but in the foreground — this kind of hidden racism that many of us don’t want to believe for a moment that we embody and we encompass,” he said. “But the fact is that we must.”

“There is a lot of bureaucracy and a slowness in the process of resettlement generally — not only in the Canadian government but throughout the Western world,” said Debrework. “But at the end of the day, we are all human beings whether white, black, Arab, Muslim or Christian. All need equal care. All need dignity.”

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