Key elements of Justin Trudeau’s plan to quickly resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have yet to get off the ground, with the majority of the 500 Canadian officials who will screen and scrutinize the newcomers still waiting to be deployed to the Mideast.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in London on Wednesday to meet the Queen and British Prime Minister David Cameron, conceded that his government altered its plans to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees to accommodate the changed perceptions about risk after the terrorist attacks in Paris almost two weeks ago. As Mr. Trudeau sat down with his British counterpart, he noted they’d be discussing the “very real security concerns that we’re all faced with around the world and at home.”
Liberal ministers unveiled their refugee-resettlement plan on Tuesday, but government officials and refugee groups say important details of the operation are still in the planning stages.
Before they come to Canada between now and the end of February, the refugees will be screened in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey by federal officials – mostly members of the Canadian Armed Forces, but also officials from the departments of Immigration and Public Safety.
A senior government official said Canadian Forces personnel will make up as many as 250 of the 500 officials to be deployed to the Mideast to screen refugees, with these military staff members conducting health checks and taking fingerprints and iris scans from the refugees, to be checked against immigration and law-enforcement databases in Canada and the United States.
To date, 12 members of the Canadian Forces who will help with the effort have been dispatched to the region.
More than 100 officials representing Ottawa, the provinces and refugee-resettlement groups are meeting in Toronto this weekend to hash out details regarding how things will unfold once asylum seekers arrive on Canadian soil.
“This has become the great Canadian national project,” Chris Friesen, who heads the settlement programs for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said of the Syrian refugee effort.
The Liberals promised in the 2015 election campaign to bring 25,000 government-sponsored refugees to Canada by Dec. 31, but the plan unveiled earlier this week shows they have fallen short of that. Ottawa is now pledging to bring in 15,000 government-sponsored refugees by the end of February, 2016, with the rest to come later.
Ottawa is also bringing in 10,000 privately sponsored refugees, meaning asylum seekers whose first-year costs of settlement are covered by groups of Canadians.
These privately backed refugees were mostly in the system before the Liberals won the Oct. 19 election, which explains why they can be welcomed more quickly than the new influx of government-sponsored refugees.
Mr. Trudeau defended his government’s decision to stretch the arrival of the Syrian refugees over a longer period of time.
“Canadians who have been extremely supportive and open to the idea of bringing in more refugees and demonstrating that Canada is there to help, had a few more questions,” Mr. Trudeau said in London. “We realized that the most important thing is to be able to reassure Canadians that absolutely everything is being done to keep Canadians safe and, therefore, ensure that these refugees are welcomed as new Canadians, and not a cause for anxiety or division within the population.”
The United Nations’ refugee agency said it will shorten its screening system to deliver the 15,000 government-sponsored refugees Canada has requested in just a few months.
Aoife McDonnell, external relations officer at the UNHCR office in Jordan, said the agency was planning to submit 7,000 Syrian names for consideration by Canada as part of the overall 25,000 figure.
The 7,000 would not include those refugees who are being privately sponsored, she said, so the actual number coming from the Syrian refugee population in Jordan could be higher.
“We have already started the identification of cases; staff is working after-hours and on weekends,” Ms. McDonnell said.
She added that time was short because the Canadian government had only outlined its plans to UNHCR on Saturday.
“Our staff are essentially volunteering their time because there is a tremendous amount of goodwill to make this happen,” she said.
Some 80 per cent of the 634,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan live outside the formal camps, and Ms. McDonnell said living conditions are actually more dire among those living outside Zaatari and other camps.
“The Canadian program will give these people an opportunity to get back to some kind of normalcy,” she said. “People are just really tired of living in this situation, and really ready to get back into daily life, where they go to work and the kids go to school.”