Op-ed

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The ones we leave behind: Syrians, war and citizenship

by Glenn Davidson

iPolitics
April 18, 2016

Canada’s recent response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been inspiring. Ottawa has shown the rest of the world how people in desperate need can be supported by a government committed to act. Across Canada, communities large and small have risen to the challenge, welcoming this wave of refugees with great-hearted enthusiasm.

While they can rightly take a great sense of pride in this, some Canadians also will feel a sense of helplessness — knowing that a small group of Syrian men and women with close ties to Canada remain trapped in Syria.

I’m referring to the loyal and dedicated locally-engaged Syrian staff who served Canada in Damascus until the embassy was closed in early 2012. When this happened, the Canadian staff were evacuated to other missions or returned to Canada. The Syrian staff were simply let go.

Every effort was made to look after them, to provide fair compensation and help them prepare for other employment. Still, cutting ties with people who had devoted their entire working lives to serving Canada — leaving them behind in a country descending into civil war — was extraordinarily difficult.

Every diplomatic mission around the world employs locally engaged staff; their number and skill sets vary depending on the size and focus of the mission. In a large mission, the local staff may include drivers, property specialists, immigration and visa officers, consular staff, commercial and public affairs officers, finance, personnel and administrative officers.

Many of these staffers are highly skilled and educated. All have good language skills in English and/or French and must conform to the requirements of the Government of Canada for employment. These include strict adherence to the Code of Values and Ethics, respecting Canadian standards for equity in all areas from gender to religion, and applying Canadian legal and other norms in all dealings with business and government.

The result is a team of local staff at each mission which is deeply immersed in Canadian values and culture. Some, in fact, become so attuned to these values that they have difficulty adjusting to cultural expectations of daily life in their own societies. They become Canadian — in every sense except their actual citizenship.

In addition to the locally engaged staff at embassies and regional consulates, there are also honourary consuls — typically prominent citizens of the country who live in cities where there is no diplomatic mission. They provide consular service for Canada in those cities, and invaluable support and knowledge to assist Canadian business or other initiatives. The honourary consuls receive a very modest annual grant but are otherwise unpaid. They often serve Canada for extended periods and render exemplary service.

Many countries recognize the value, contributions and loyalty of their local staff through programs leading to citizenship. Canada does not — and these devoted friends of Canada must apply for immigration like any other applicant, with no consideration of their service and demonstrated loyalty to this country.

The recent focus on immigration arising from the Syrian refugee crisis provides an ideal opportunity for the Government of Canada to review its policy toward this very small but valuable global pool of potential immigrants.

This review should be undertaken immediately, and a program developed to offer a fast-track to Permanent Resident status for Canada’s locally engaged diplomatic staff and honourary consuls. The program should be merit-based, and require a record of exemplary performance over a minimum qualifying period of, say, ten years or more. It should be based on application, and not granted automatically.

This would be fair and reasonable recognition for the skilled people who already have served Canada well — people who would integrate seamlessly into our society. They have much to offer. It’s in Canada’s interest to open the door for them.

Glenn Davidson is a retired vice-admiral and former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan and Syria. He is a member of the board of governors of King’s College, a director of the Canadian International Council and a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Photo Credit: iPolitics

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