They need to live somewhere.

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History Says the West Will Embrace Syrian Refugees

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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In May 1976, one year into Lebanon's civil war, Canada threw open its doors. "Any Lebanese people wishing to apply to come to Canada," Manpower and Immigration Minister Robert Andras told Parliament, "who can get out of the dangerous situation in Lebanon and go to a third country of any kind, can make application and we will expedite the procedure."

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

It wasn't posturing. Canada created a special category for Lebanese applicants, opening an office in Cyprus to process them. By the end of the year Canada admitted 6,000 Lebanese under the program; by 1992, 72,000 Lebanese had immigrated, a huge number for Canada, which then had fewer than 30 million residents.

Canada's response to Lebanon's civil war wasn't unusual; the country had similarly accepted large numbers of Hungarians in 1956, Vietnamese in 1979 and Kosovars in the late 1990s. Yet four years into the civil war in Syria, Canada has accepted just 2,374 refugees, about one-quarter the number of Lebanese migrants it had taken at roughly the same point in that country's conflict. Which raises the question: What's different this time? And will it last?

That same question applies to other countries. Europe's struggle to deal with Syrian migrants has made it more important to coax Canada and other developed countries to accept more migrants themselves. Australia, for example, admitted 16,000 Lebanese between 1976 and 1981, but has so far accepted about 2,200 Syrians. The U.S., which accepted more than 100,000 Cambodian refugees after the country was invaded by Vietnam in 1979, has taken in just 1,500 Syrian refugees so far.

Getting those countries to open their doors further, especially given the unrest Syrian migrants have caused in Europe, may seem like an unrealistic goal. But a look back at how New World countries responded to similar waves of migrants fleeing conflict shows the current reluctance is a departure from the norm. Understanding what underlies that shift may be part of reversing it.

In Canada, polling suggests that since the influx of Lebanese migrants, public opinion has become even more open to newcomers. People have become less likely to say immigration levels are too high, less likely to question the legitimacy of refugee claims, and more willing to accept political refugees who wouldn't qualify to immigrate through the usual channels.

But those views mask an increasingly partisan divide. A poll released last week found that while 54 percent of Canadians favor taking in more refugees, just 39 percent of those who support the governing Conservative Party feel the same way. Conservative voters are also more likely to call refugees "opportunists" and to call the migrant crisis "a European problem."

By refusing to accept more Syrians, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is appealing to his core supporters in advance of next month's election, according to Keith Neuman, director of the Environics Institute, a polling organization in Toronto. "He's playing wedge politics," Neuman told me. "Just about everything the party is doing is really focused on the base, rather than trying to broaden it."

Politics affects other countries' decision making, but in different ways. In Australia, the debate has focused on religion: Prime Minister Tony Abbott said earlier this week that his government would accept more Syrians, but mainly Christians. In the U.S., which has allowed fewer Syrian refugees than either Canada or Australia, the holdup seems primarily due to a fear of letting in terrorists, as well as the growing fetish for border walls in general.

Whatever the reason, easing the pressure on Europe entails increasing the flow of migrants to other rich nations, which means reversing some of the anti-migrant sentiment on display recently. And that starts with recognizing that such sentiment isn't some indelible attribute of human nature; it's the product of a struggle between generosity and its opposite, which has lately been winning. But probably not for long.

If that seems woolly-minded or naive, notice that the Canadian government's position appears to be hurting it in the polls, or that the Australian government said Wednesday that it will permanently resettle 12,000 more Syrian refugees regardless of their religion, or that even Donald Trump has now said the U.S. should take in more Syrians.

Or just read through the parliamentary transcripts after Canada's special program for Lebanese migrants started. Far from criticizing the policy, members of the other parties called on the government to do more. "I think that most of us welcome the special arrangements," Gordon Fairweather, a member of the Progressive Conservative Party (a forerunner to today's Conservatives), told Parliament back in 1976. But he added: "Many students from Lebanon who are unable to get help from home will require help. I hope the minister can arrange for them to obtain work permits this summer, so that they can augment their finances."

"If they can find work," Andras said in response, "we will give them visas." History suggests that kind of hospitality is more rule than exception -- that there's a buoyant quality to altruism. If that's right, maybe the politics of the moment won't prevent Canada and other countries from finding it again.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net