Refugee Crisis in Europe

Lubomyr Luciuk, Kingston, On.

Canada has been good to refugees.

I should know. My late parents were both political refugees, fleeing the Soviet and Nazi occupations that eviscerated Ukraine, before, during, and after the Second World War.
Like millions of others, they found themselves in western Europe at war’s end, their homeland no longer theirs. They could not return. They were known as DPs (Displaced Persons).

They were fortunate because most Canadians welcomed DP immigration. If they had not I would not be here. Canada alone took in over 35,000 Ukrainians and many more of other ethnic, national, and religious origins. Ours is a generous land.

Within the exile community I grew up in there was nothing but gratitude for the sanctuary this country had offered. Certainly, the DPs faced some prejudice and more than a little ignorance about who they were and why they had left their homeland. And few would become here what they may have been in Ukraine. But most endured, believing their hard work and sacrifices would create better futures for their children and children’s children.

That proved true.

Being refugees most DPs maintained an abiding interest in the fate of the homeland they had been forced to leave behind, hoping that, someday, they could return to a free Ukraine. It used to be said they were living on packed suitcases. I still have the luggage that came over on the proverbial boat transporting my parents to Canada. I pass that battered piece daily as I enter my study. It reminds me of what they suffered, what they accomplished, and of how good Canada was to them.

But their immigration to Canada was not rushed. Like hundreds of thousands of other refugees they were obliged to register and live in a DP camp, for several years, while the overseeing authorities confirmed their identities, ran security checks, determined what skills they had, taught them English and, gradually, allowed for their measured resettlement to occur, not just to Canada but to other countries in the West, including the UK, Belgium, Australia, the USA, and France. Of course, the DPs had some choice about which country they would go to, but only some. And the receiving countries could be quite picky about whom they wanted – in Canada’s case the selection process favoured, for example, young, single men for the mining towns and lumber camps of north-central Ontario, farm hands for Prairie homesteads and domestics and industrial workers for the larger urban centres of central Canada. Needless to say artists, poets, writers, clergymen and even émigré politicians were less likely to be first in line for transport – Canada offered asylum but met its own needs. It gave, but it also took. Fair enough.

In concert with UN officials, Canadian immigration officers in the field represented this country’s frontline gatekeepers. Once these experienced men and women made their selections, the chosen were carefully directed to specific communities, wherever they were needed. My parents were sent to Kingston. All DPs were obliged to remain where they were placed for 2 years, while working to pay back the cost of passage. So even as they left the DP camps these migrants had financial responsibilities to the country that accepted them. They did not get to decide where they would live, or work, and their access to this country’s health care and social security safety nets was limited – they knew they had been protected from harm and were being given a second chance to rebuild their lives, without much mollycoddling. That is all real refugees want.

The DPs were grateful. While some failed, the horrors they suffered bringing them down, most gave back much more than they received from the countries that sheltered them, save perhaps for the gift of freedom, which they found priceless.

In considering the contemporary refugee crisis in Europe we could do well by remembering how the DPs were treated. After their protection was first ensured, in refugee camps where they could rest, recuperate, and pause to think about what they should do next, their material and other needs were attended to. Meanwhile, they were thoroughly vetted. Only gradually were they directed to chosen places of resettlement. This commonsensical solution to a historic refugee crisis proved beneficial to the DPs and to the countries that accepted them. There is nothing to say it could not work again.