Harold Jantz (supplied photo).

Harold Jantz (supplied photo).

By Harold Jantz, guest blogger

Can Canada accept 200,000 refugees from the many thousands now flowing into Europe? That’s a number that’s been suggested by some. It certainly can. Our history shows we’ve been generous in the past and there’s every reason to be as hospitable again.

During the post-war years from 1946 to 1952, Canada took in 200,000 displaced persons, as they were called then, mostly from Europe. That was at a time when our population was 12.3 million and Canada was rebuilding after the war effort.

In the mid-1950s, the cold war of the West with the Soviet Union was at its height and in Hungary, a revolution broke out. Within a 12-week period 200,000 people fled the country and the Soviets invaded, determined to avoid a breakup of the Soviet bloc.

Within 48 hours of the Soviet action, Canadian immigration officers in Vienna were ordered to give priority to Hungarian refugees. The Canadian immigration minister, J. W. Pickersgill, went to Vienna personally to oversee the activity there; and previous conditions that would have made refugees from a Soviet-dominated country less preferred, such as “medical concerns or political leanings” were “literally written off” by Pickersgill, historian Patrick Stewart has recounted.

In fact, because winter was approaching and the refugees were virtually without means, Pickersgill urged, and the finance minister at the time acquiesced, that those who were accepted for Canada be flown here free of charge. At the time 13,000 families took Hungarians into their homes and by 1958 Canada had welcomed 37,500 of those who had fled.

Read more about how Canadian denominations are working together with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada to respond to the refugee crisis in Syria, Iraq and beyond at theEFC.ca/MiddleEastRefugees. Don’t miss the open letter there from the EFC to the federal party leaders.

An even more dramatic situation developed after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In the years that followed, more than a million people fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, many of them ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. In the two decades after 1975, some 800,000 boat people successfully fled Vietnam for other countries, but many tens of thousands of others didn’t survive. Often they were intercepted by pirates, or starvation, illness, lack of drinking water or shipwreck took their lives.

When Vietnam began to expel ethnic Chinese in 1978 it caught the world’s attention, and Canada was among the countries most responsive to the crisis. It was here in Winnipeg through the intervention of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) that the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program was introduced with government support that year.

As a result of the program, today two-thirds of privately sponsored refugees come through agreements that some 85 organizations have made with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Through such private sponsorships 200,000 refugees have arrived in Canada since 1978. Generally, it means that the churches or groups who agree to sponsor a family accept financial obligations of $20,000 to $30,000 as well as a commitment to walk alongside the family for at least a year as they enter into Canadian life.

Hardly anything could match the sheer dedication of the Canadian immigration officers in Asia when the refugee crisis erupted in 1978. In the early days Ian Hamilton, who was chief immigration officer for Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma, was joined by 22-year-old Scott Mullin, a recent university graduate, and for a period of time they interviewed nearly 1,000 refugees a day, working from early morning till late in the night. Between 1979 and 1980, Canada took in 60,000 refugees. Refugees from Indochina made up a quarter of all the immigrants in several of those years.

Canada has a record of generosity and openness to refugees and ought to respond again. We are one of the most blessed countries on Earth. In relative terms no country likely has more capacity to accept newcomers than we. Coleson Smith, an American student in Budapest, writes about the city’s Keleti train station, an enormous underground railway junction where thousands of the Middle East refugees have collected and then moved on. Its physical architecture with room to rest, even wash up and find shelter against the heat have served the transients well.

But what has not served them as well is the country’s social architecture, its “social programs and organizations,” even though many Hungarian aid groups and civilians have made strong efforts to help. Smith writes that he has observed many citizens treating the refugees hospitably, despite the opposition of the government.

Certainly, there are reasonable issues to be raised about this flow of refugees. One cannot help noting how many of them appear to be young. Young men greatly outnumber young women or the elderly. MCC workers in Lebanon who have been working to provide aid to refugees throughout the region, write that Christian church leaders lament the exodus of a Christian population that has the capacity to be a mediating influence there between antagonists.

They urge that in the drive to build support to aid refugees coming into Europe, the needs of those remaining in the Middle East should not be forgotten. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have taken millions of displaced persons. They need our help. It must be continued strongly. Such help is far more important than bombing targets associated with the militant group Islamic State, which the MCC workers believe will not improve the situation in the long term.

But they also urge help for the refugees. Many hundreds of thousands of refugees, the majority of them Muslim, fewer numbers Christian, and others too are now searching for a new home. Many are from the Middle East, others from parts of Africa, still others from as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan. We could set a goal of opening our doors to 200,000 of them if we wished. As one of the most blessed countries on Earth, we have a moral imperative to help. It will not quickly exceed our capacity.

Harold Jantz is a retired editor of Christian publications. Reach him at jantz@mts.net.

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