Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan

Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. – Greenpeace

It has taken the world four years to wake up to the horror in Syria. How we respond to the crisis will help determine the kind of world we live in.

The Syrian crisis is almost beyond comprehension – the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since WWII. Over 17 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance: 13.5 million people within Syria (over half of whom are displaced) and 4.2 million people who fled the country. Civilian deaths from the conflict are estimated at over 250,000.

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Since 2011, the Syrian people have faced uninterrupted violence from Government forces and armed opposition groups. The European Commission states, “Rape and sexual violence, enforced disappearances, forcible displacement, recruitment of child soldiers, summary executions and deliberate shelling of civilian targets have become commonplace.”

We cannot stand idly by. Not when our hands are so dirty. Not when the world has become so interconnected. Not as a looming refugee threat grows in many highly populated areas of the world. We need to get this right, because the refugee era has arrived.

Through our contribution to climate change, we in the West have helped create the mad state of affairs in Syria. Research conducted by Columbia University’s Earth Institute explored how a record-breaking drought between 2006 and 2010 contributed to the Syrian uprising of 2011. Up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” (Moreover, in 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US federal agency, published strong evidence linking the drought to climate change.) Millions of farmers and their families abandoned their properties, and joined hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees that had fled the American invasion of Iraq and the resulting sectarian violence. Syria’s big cities became overcrowded, food prices soared and water became scarce. Mismanagement and neglect by the al-Assad regime sparked the civil war still raging today. Fear, anger, misery and disaffection created the opening for ISIS to thrive in Syria.

drought

How we deal with Syria affects our national identity and our international reputation. The Syrian crisis provides us with the opportunity to restore our tarnished image as humanitarians. We must do better than allowing in only about 2,500 refugees between 2013 and September 2015. Canada has a proud history of helping refugees. In 1957, Canada admitted 37,000 Hungarians. From 1979-1980, Canada welcomed almost 60,000 Vietnamese.

We can do more than accept a very small percentage of the refugees; we can send money to help care for and resettle over 17 million Syrian people, both inside and outside of Syria. Despite record levels of aid from the international community, the UN refugee agency reported in September a funding shortfall of an astounding $4.6 billion dollars (62% of the budget). The Canadian federal government has pledged $810 million in aid for Syria. In September, the government announced it will also match every eligible dollar donated by individual Canadians to registered Canadian charities for aid in the crisis, up to $100 million, until December 31, 2015.

The Liberal Government’s pledge to stop participating in the US led bombing missions in Syria and Iraq was the right move. Unfortunately, it cost us $528 million, fell outside of international law, and was deemed a failure by authorities including former US President Jimmy Carter, retired Canadian colonel George Petrolekas (fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute), Anthony Cordesman (Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington), and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. All promote the pursuit of diplomatic solutions as the only way to establish peace in the region.

As humanitarians and peacekeepers we can hold our heads high and regain our positive international influence.

The Syrian refugee crisis is a trial run for the massive mobilization of climate refugees to come. Around 1 billion people today do not have adequate water for drinking, agriculture or sanitation, and the situation is going to get worse. Since the early twentieth century, with few exceptions, glaciers around the world have been retreating at unprecedented rates (National Snow and Ice Data Center). More than half of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are being depleted (Water Resources Research Journal, June 2015). About one in three people live in drylands susceptible to desertification. The United Nations predicts that by 2030, between 24 and 700 million people will be displaced by water crises. In January 2015, the World Economic Forum identified the water scarcity as the number one global risk based on impact to society.

This is a pivotal moment. The U.S. Defense Department issued a report last November identifying climate change as a “threat multiplier” that will impact national security. Do we turn our back on the destitute of the world and enhance security measures in an attempt to protect ourselves from their anger, their wrath and their desperation? Or, do we accept our responsibility toward our fellow man, extend a helping hand and share our good fortune? As the saying goes: United we stand

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