Complex and complicated are not synonyms, and why the difference matters.

It has become trite to say that we live in a complex world. But, when asked, many people will talk about phenomena that are complicated, not complex. Complicated? Complex? What’s the difference?

The Canadian government plans to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees now living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey by the end of February 2016 (the original plan’s deadline was December 31, 2015).

So, as we embark on this national effort, is the resettlement of refugees complicated or complex?

One could argue that it is complicated. Resettlement is an exercise in logistics with lots of precedent: it requires simply that we work with the technical experts to get the job done. Ask the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to identify registered refugees from Syria (Turkey in the case of those in Turkey where UNHCR’s jurisdiction is not accepted). Apply accepted criteria to decide who are the most vulnerable. Have the RCMP screen them for security clearance. Order planes. Work with the International Organization for Migration (IMO) to get people on planes. Find Canadian communities in which to place the families. Send the refugees to Canada. Help them settle effectively (another exercise in logistics and compassion).

Complicated is linear. Name your goal. Create the plan to support the goal. Do the math. Apply the technical expertise. Line up supports.

Complex is not linear. Complex problems have moving parts, unforeseen variables, and uncertain outcomes. Complex recognizes context, such as the attitudes of both refugees and Canadians. Complex requires adapting to shifting sands, changing and unpredictable environments, and the emotions and culture of the people involved.

It is clear that while we may initially have thought that taking in 25,000 refugees was a complicated problem, easily achieved in a short time frame, we now know that it is a complex, multi-faceted, shifting problem requiring diplomacy, tact, compassion and perseverance.

We learned that the refugees themselves want more time. Most of those consulted in the first wave of texts from officials inviting them to an interview, do not want to come to Canada.* Why? Well, most of us already here probably think of the cold, the distance, the cultural adaptation that would be required. Many of us may be insulted because our generosity is not being accepted unconditionally. (This was clearly the concern of one official interviewed.)

But, the reasons are more complex and contextual than that linear response. Many of the refugees offered a place in Canada need time to consult with their families. Syrians value consultation with their extended families who may be scattered in other refugee situations, and may not support one branch of the family moving to Canada without the others. In addition, they are in safe places; cramped and not necessarily inviting places, but safe places to be while they think about the next move. And, in my experience of working in refugee communities, most really just want to go home. Going to Canada may feel like the death of that dream. Before we let that upset us, and our own sense of generosity, remember that it is only because they would make the move to Canada with such commitment that they may be able to do so only once they have given up on going back to Syria.

So, it seems that the resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees is actually complex. The recognition of this led the government to extend the deadline, to send the Ministers of Immigration, Defense and Health to refugee camps to talk with refugees so that our leaders could develop more understanding, and to allow UNHCR to give the refugees more time to respond to our invitation, among other demonstrations of response to complexity. This reframing of the situation allowed for a more nuanced response: and hopefully, a much stronger solution to our international obligation to protect people in refugee situations.

*National Post, “Syrian refugees lukewarm on coming to Canada by December 31, officials say” December 3, 2015