While Canada's proudly welcomed 700,000 refugees since the Second World War it has silently kept the door shut on certain groups over the years, says the curator of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
"It has been a little bit quiet about the people we don't allow," Armando Perla told a conference at the University of Manitoba.War resisters, homosexual refugees and Roma refugees from Eastern Europe haven't always received a warm welcome, said the refugee from El Salvador who's working on the refugees exhibit for the new museum.
If history's taught the world anything, it's that human rights and refugee protection go hand in hand, said lawyer David Matas.
"If you say no to refugees, you're saying yes to the violation of human rights," he said at the Strangers in a New Homeland conference that ends today.
When Jews in Hitler's Germany and other parts of Europe were in danger, countries like Canada and the U.S. wouldn't take them, said Matas. Delegates who attended the Evian conference in France in 1938 to find refuge for threatened Jews expressed sympathy but failed to help. In 1939, close to 1,000 Jewish passengers aboard the ocean liner St. Louis were turned away from safe harbours and returned to Europe. An estimated 254 ended up dead in the Holocaust, said Matas.
The Nazis could see that the world didn't care about what happened to the Jews, and that sent the signal they could get away with genocide, said Matas. Doing nothing for refugees eventually resulted in the slaughter of six million people, he added.
When countries don't act, they're complicit in refugee persecution, he said.
"Today we shake our heads. It was obvious the Jews needed protection from the Nazis." That kind of hindsight hasn't improved the vision of countries that champion human rights today, said Matas.Targets set by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees for finding safe countries for refugees to go aren't being met, even though there aren't that many in a world of seven billion people.
"What's striking is that the numbers are so low," said Matas.For example, only half of the target of 1,351 refugees who fled Sudan found a country to call home, he said.
Thousands of freedom fighters who fled Iran and have taken refuge in the chaos of Iraq and millions Falun Gong practitioners in China are persecuted and can't get refugee status, said Matas.
Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, those who had to flee Myanmar and Sudan are still stuck in refugee camps because so many countries don't want to help people and acknowledge the unbearable conditions of the places they fled.
"The message to the Sri Lankan government is 'Go ahead and mistreat the Tamil minority - we don't care,' " said Matas.Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently condemned plans to hold a summit in Sri Lanka because of the country's human rights record. But Canada has failed to offer protection to Tamil refugees who fled Sri Lanka, said Matas.
Countries that condemn a country's human rights record then refuse to offer the people who've fled from it refugee status "don't really know what they're saying," said Matas.