Former senator says country could take 90,000 displaced persons

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By: Clare Mellor

Romeo Dallaire has seen first-hand the desperation of Syrian children living in refugee camps.

“They can’t get to school. They are sitting around in the middle of a hot desert with (nothing) whatsoever, ” said the retired lieutenant-general and former senator, who was in Jordan in July and visited refugee camps along the Syria border.

“The young people are totally disenfranchised. It is not surprising that they are being easily recruited by the Free Syrian Army to go and fight.”

Dallaire, who will be in Halifax this week, has recently said that Canada has the capacity to take as many as 90,000 Syrian refugees. He reiterated those numbers in an interview with The Chronicle Herald on Friday.

“We ought to be talking in the numbers of 80,000 to 90,000, ” he said in a phone interview from Ottawa.

Dallaire, who was the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force during the Rwandan genocide, said the Syrian conflict reminds him of Rwanda, with millions of people being displaced and children being exposed to horrors of war.

“I’m brought back to Rwanda,” he said. “I see an abandonment of those people, particularly the abandonment of the children.

“It has been quite difficult to watch because when we’ve experienced things like that, we feel it. It is not just watching it.”

Dallaire, founder of the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative based at Dalhousie University, and Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS Free World, will be speaking about child soldiers and sexual violence as weapons of war at a sold-out event Thursday at Dal.

“Child soldiers, right now, are the primary weapon system used by all sides in Syria, as they are being used in Iraq the same,” Dallaire said.

“What is getting worse is that they are recruiting them younger and younger.”

Syria was a well-educated, middle-class society, and its citizens have many skills to offer, however, a whole generation will soon be lost, Dallaire said.

He has spoken with young Syrians, some of whom have now spent three years in camps with precarious living conditions.

“Young people are seeing their their lives go by,” he said. “They are not getting the skills they need.

“We seem to be quite prepared to let people rot away in camps or, if they are able to get through, give them such a horrible, hard time in trying to find safety and a place to live.

Dallaire said Canada has an important history of helping refugees and the government should not be using security concerns as an excuse not to act.

Canada needs to act immediately and could utilize military bases to temporarily house arriving refugees, he said.

“We’ve got enough strategic lift to move thousands and thousands of people,” he said. “We’ve got a great capability in moving populations, so we can get them out (of camps) soon. So I’m talking six months, seven months, at most,” he said.

Dallaire spoke about the recent outpouring of concern for refugees following the circulation of the image of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, who drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach after his family fled Syria.

“They were killing and slaughtering thousands and thousands of children in the fighting and in the mutilations and mass atrocities in Syria, well before that one child,” Dallaire said. “Where were we? Where was the media? Where was everybody. This has been going on for four years.”