TORONTO – Canada's Conservative government has so far declined to resettle more Syrian refugees despite the haunting image of a drowned 3-year-old washed up on a Turkish beach that focused the world's attention on the largest migrant crisis since World War II.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government announced Saturday that Canada will provide $100 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugee camps but made no announcement to resettle more refugees in Canada. A number of countries have announced they'll take in thousands of more Syrian refugees since the picture of the dead toddler pierced people's consciousness two weeks ago.
Canada's government has endured sharp criticism for taking in just 2,500 refugees since Jan. 2014. More than 4 million Syrians have fled their country since the conflict began in 2011. The Harper government announced in January it would accept 10,000 over three years and promised in early August to accept an additional 10,000 over four years.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien called it a "cold-hearted reaction" to the Syrian crisis that has "shamed Canada in the eyes of Canadians and of the international community."
"German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stepped up to the plate, and the world looks upon the generosity of her country with admiration. The same goes for Norway, Sweden and Finland, which have welcomed refugees and do not erect roadblocks to taking them in. Instead they get rid of roadblocks. But not Mr. Harper," Chretien said in an open letter to several newspapers.
"In my travels around the globe, I am regularly asked: What has happened to Canada? What has happened to the advanced, peace-seeking, progressive country Canada once was?"
Canada has long prided itself for opening its doors wider than any nation to asylum seekers, but the number it welcomes has waned since Harper took power almost 10 years ago.
In times of crisis in decades past, Canada resettled refugees quickly and in large numbers. It airlifted more than 5,000 people from Kosovo in the late 1990s, more than 5,000 from Uganda in 1972 and resettled 60,000 Vietnamese in 1979-80. More than 1.2 million refugees have arrived in Canada since World War II.
But the number of refugees has declined since Harper became prime minister in 2006. In 2005, Canada received 35,775 refugees. Canada welcomed 23,286 last year. According to the United Nations, Canada has dropped from the fifth-highest refugee-receiving country in 2000 to 15th last year.
Asked if no additional Syrian refugees would be resettled in Canada a senior Harper aide said "other options are still being considered, but I am not sure on timing." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Harper, who faces re-election Oct. 19, has emphasized Canada's military mission against Islamic State group and the importance of screening refugee claimants in recent weeks.
Opposition Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has said Canada should take in 25,000 Syrian refugees immediately while New Democrat opposition leader Tom Mulcair said they'll take in 10,000 more before the end of the year.
Polls and analysts call the election a three-way toss-up. According to the CTV/Globe and Mail/Nanos Nightly Tracking Poll the Liberals are at 32 percent while the Conservatives are at 31 percent and the New Democrats at 30 percent. The margin of error for the survey of 1,200 respondents is 2.8 percent.
The Conservatives' one-year high was 33 percent on May 22. They fell to 26 percent earlier this week.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, believes media in Canada are underestimating the opposition to more Muslim immigrants.
"Support for the Conservatives has not shrunk in the past few days. Indeed, it is inching up," Wiseman said.