“Economic sanctions that afflict the poor must be lifted. I stress the word ‘poor,’” Archimandrite (head of a monastery) Georges Masri said in an e-mail from his home base in Syria. He was responding to my request for his views on the unfolding humanitarian crisis in his country, and whether sanctions have exacerbated it.
“The traditional war destroyed our infrastructure and service buildings such as hospitals, factories, energy and water centres, oil sources, and what was not destroyed was stolen,” he added.
“The economic war (sanctions and inflation) destroyed the lives of people. The most important requirements of life that are considered normal for the rest of the world have become for us a luxury: by this I mean heating, medicine and earning a livelihood with dignity.”
The archimandrite’s sentiments were shared by several Middle Eastern and international leaders of various religious and political persuasions who recently sent an urgent letter of appeal requesting that U.S. President Joe Biden remove sanctions.
While the spotlight was on U.S. sanctions, Canadian ones have much the same effect, say policy analysts, academics and humanitarian aid workers. Towed along by the powerful currents of U.S. foreign policy and its own penchant for multilateralism, Canada has its sanctions that are adding to peoples’ burdens as well.
“We urge both the U.S. and Canadian governments to lift the unjust and illegal sanctions imposed on the Syrian people,” His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphram II, the Damascus-based Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East told Convivium in an e-mail.
There is a glaring discrepancy between Canada’s use of sanctions as a silver bullet response to international crises, and its immigration policy.
If Canada’s goal is to enhance international peace and stability rather than the country’s status on the world stage as a benevolent, refugee-welcoming country, it is time for the government to lift sanctions that are exacerbating the misery of vulnerable people in countries already devastated by war, conflict and COVID-19.
Unlike the U.S., Canada has an open-door policy for immigrants, laudable for the most part, but which requires some critical thinking.
To compensate for falling numbers last year due to COVID-19, Canada has set the most ambitious immigration levels plan in its history. Plans are under way to welcome over 400,000 immigrants per year over the next three years. This is 0.9 per cent of the country’s population in immigrants, which is three times higher than the per capita newcomer intake in the U.S.
Rather than increase the quota of immigrants and refugees, Canadian policy makers could expend more energy in changing the situations that cause people to flee their own countries in the first place.
Atif Kubursi, professor emeritus at McMaster University in Hamilton and a former executive director of the UN Economic and Social Commission, points to the example of Canadian sanctions on Syria.
“If a Syrian businessman wants to buy Canadian products, he has to open an account for the transaction. But this cannot be done as the Canadian government prevents Canadian banks from opening such accounts for the purposes of trade with Syria – no matter how benign the Canadian product may be, or how urgently it might be needed in Syria,” Kubursi said.
Sanctions against Lebanon are just as devastating for ordinary people there, he said.
“Sanctions against Lebanon are often justified as being directed exclusively at military items, but they frequently end up being applied to virtually all goods – including spare parts needed to operate machinery in hospitals, the electricity sector and pharmaceutical companies,” Kubursi said.
Lebanon desperately needs these items to help survivors of the massive explosion in Beirut last August and to stem the tide of COVID-19, which is overloading the healthcare system.
The streets of Damascus and other cities such as Homs and Aleppo in Syria are teeming with war-weary people literally scrambling for their daily bread, according to humanitarian aid workers and the people they serve. The country, once known as the breadbasket of the Middle East, has become an international basket case.
“Syria is on the brink of a famine,” Carl Hetu, Canadian director of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) said.
“Lebanon is facing similar realities,” he added.
Nuri Kino, leader of the Sweden-based charity A Demand for Action, paints a grim picture of life in both countries.
“One of our volunteers and Board members, Miriam Rasho, travelled recently from Sweden to Syria to assess the situation there,” he said in an interview. “A man she met there told her that it was better to live under the bombs of war than under the sanctions from the West that have left the economy in a quandary. He also told her it is impossible for a country to recover under such conditions because it’s in a chokehold.”
“The number of people on the streets begging for food has doubled in a year, both in government and opposition-controlled areas,” Kino said.
The struggle for daily bread leaves people exhausted physically and emotionally, leaving them little energy to focus on the deadly pandemic raging around them.
Kino said: “One of Miriam Rasho’s informants told her: ‘If you get sick, you get sick. We are all mentally exhausted after more than 10 years of war. It will just be another illness and most people will not be able to afford medical care. We don’t have time other than to hunt for bread for the day.’”
Asked about Lebanon he said: “Beirut and other cities are under lockdown and curfew. Our volunteers had to get special permission to deliver food to the needy. One of the families that came to us for food was that of a little Syrian refugee girl called Sama Hamad.”
Sama had her brief moment of fame when the Middle Eastern media covered the story of her entire family’s survival in the August port explosion, and surgeons replaced an eye she had lost.
“But when the media spotlight turned away from Beirut, she was just another forgotten refugee child. She was very happy and grateful we helped her.”
Canada has so far paid no heed to UN calls to ease sanctions, including an appeal last year by UN Secretary General Antonio Gutiérrez to all countries that have imposed sanctions on others.
But the people of Syria and Lebanon have reached a breaking point, and it is high time to re-think the strategy of using sanctions as a means to win political concessions.
The solution to humanitarian crises is not necessarily to bring the brightest and best as immigrants and refugees to Canada, but to help ease the conditions that force people to flee in sheer desperation.
Canada would do well to pay close attention to the advice of His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphram II, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.
“To help alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, Canada can start by removing the sanctions and helping the Syrian people recover and rebuild their lives,” he said. “Also, by engaging in development projects to help people find jobs and provide for families instead of encouraging an exodus. This can be done through local churches and humanitarian organizations.”
If Canada and other countries do not act swiftly and effectively to ease the burdens of the people of Syria and Lebanon, countless more of them will go to bed cold and hungry. More children like Sama Hamad will have to depend on charity for their daily bread.
And some day, even charitable organizations will run out of bread.
Susan Korah is an Ottawa-based journalist.
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