Canadians gather in B.C. to demand safe passage to Europe for Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees walk through fields while approaching the Greek border station of Idomeni on Feb. 26, 2016. Photo by Petros Giannakouri / Associated Press.

VANCOUVER — A choir sings hymns of peace on a downtown Vancouver beach while a small dinghy gently coasts ashore and a dozen people in life jackets, including a young boy, alight onto the sand.

The display, which took place on Saturday, was staged in solidarity with the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants who have embarked on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, fleeing conflict and looking for a new life in Europe.

Demonstrators gathered on the Pacific shoreline to add their voices to a global call for governments to offer people seeking asylum with safe transportation to Europe.

Vancouver was the only Canadian centre to participate in the event, dubbed Safe Passage, which took place in more than 120 cities, mostly within Europe.

Syrian immigrant Danny Ramadan, 32, stressed to the gathered throng, many of whom held signs with the line #safepassage4all, that migrants and refugees are just like ordinary Canadians.

"When we talk about Syrian people now, we stereotype them as refugees, as if they were born into seeking refuge. ... We forget that they did not make that journey because they can. They did it because they had to," Ramadan said.

"Refugees used to be peaceful citizens in a beautiful country. ... They had no choice but to run and they deserve to find a place to call home."

The United Nations estimates 410 people have died or gone missing so far this year while trying to cross the Mediterranean. In 2014 that figure hit 3,500 before peaking the following year at 3,771.

John Skene of Victoria, who co-organized Saturday's event, was inspired to travel to the Greek island of Lesbos for three weeks last November, helping small aid groups with camp operations and beach rescues.

"I had read an article of a woman begging a volunteer to kill her family when they had landed on a beach because she was in such distress," he said. "The next day I booked a ticket.

"I'm not going to fix the world but I can at least make somebody's journey a bit more comfortable."

On Saturday, the federal Liberal government reached its goal of bringing 25,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of February.

The Liberal's campaign promise to achieve that target by the end of 2015 was pushed back once it became apparent the deadline wouldn't be met.

Finding both temporary and permanent housing for the newly arrived publicly sponsored refugees remained a challenge for the federal government's resettlement program.

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