Should we label the refugee crisis as exclusively Syrian?

It was 4 a.m.  and -18 C on New Year’s Day in downtown Saint John. There were no cabs. I was standing by Market Square with some friends, praying that a cabbie would take pity on us. A very cold looking couple were standing on our right.

A cab comes down the hill, and the driver slows down. He rolls down the passenger-side window, he looks vaguely Indian.

“You guys going to North End?” he yelled out at the couple, no accent.

“South,” said the guy on our right.

“Sorry man,” he starts speeding up.

“I’ll pay you extra,” yelled the guy, but the cab had already driven away.

The guy is mad.

“Fucking Syrian,” he said.


The Syrian refugee crisis has been escalating for the five years since the Arab Spring.

It wasn’t on everyone’s Facebook feed though, not until the photo last year of a Syrian child, Alan Khurdi. Drowned, facedown on a Turkish beach.

And then there were the Canadian election.

Trudeau promised to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, and he got elected. The deadline wasn’t met, but there was an undeniable influx of refugees brought into Canada.

This was last year. Since then there were countless stories and opinion editorials about reunited families, volunteers and language barriers. More than 35 families have been resettled in Fredericton alone.

The headlines almost always read “Syrian refugees.”

Were all these families Syrian? No, but they are the majority.

So what’s the impact of labelling this issue exclusively Syrian?

On the social side, it might cause something like the aforementioned scene.

This is the biggest mass migration of people in some Canadians’ lifetime, and some people don’t like change.

For some like that cold angry fellow, “Syrian” became synonymous with “outsider.” To him a Syrian is someone who doesn’t belong in Canada, someone who taints his surroundings with an alien presence.

It doesn’t help that terrorist groups like Daesh are on everyone’s mind, and are immediately associated with Muslims and Arabs for a lot of people.

Generalizations breed generalizations and therefore stereotypes. The word Syrian is now immediately associated with refugees and war.

Painting a whole country’s citizens as hungry, suffering and needy people must have a negative side.

The photo of the boy on the beach achieved wonderful things. Thousands of people have been resettled from terrible conditions in refugee camps.

But it also told one story through a megaphone, drowning out all other nuanced narratives.

On the political side, it’s a little more complicated.

The recent Turkey-European Union deal is controversial. It stipulated that for every refugee sent back to Turkey from Greece, another Syrian refugee would be settled from Turkey to a country in the European Union.

There are many reasons why this deal is controversial, including the fact that it requires mass migration of asylum seekers, breaking the human right to have one’s case assessed individually.

Another reason is that this deal only works for refugees from Syria. Under Turkish law, citizens of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be granted refugee status. So if they are sent to Turkey from Greece, they will just be deported back to the country they crossed an ocean to flee.

Painting people with broad strokes is dangerous, and it shows a lack of . A refugee is a refugee, Syrian, Iraqi, Somali, Afghani – there’s a reason why we have specific laws for asylum seekers.

Would it really harm the news report if the headlines read “refugee” instead of “Syrian refugee”?