During the election, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised that his government would bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015.
But it’s a tall order, say refugee advocates. Though they applaud the idea of vastly increasing Canada’s intake of Syrian refugees, they wonder if the timeline is a bit too tight.
“People are suggesting if necessary take a bit longer and do it better, rather than just bringing people here and not having things ready for them,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“I hate to put a timeline on it because on the one hand, I’m very mindful of the pressure here. It’s not an exaggeration to say that people are dying daily,” said Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, a Toronto-based settlement agency.
With that said though, he thinks that extending the timeline to June – an extra six months – would allow service agencies to ensure the smoothest possible transition for the refugees. Chris Friesen, president of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance, thinks an even longer timeline of 14 months is more realistic.
There’s a simple reason why: It takes an enormous amount of organization to identify, screen, transport, house and get refugees ready for a life in Canada. Some of that takes place overseas, and some in Canada.
Here’s what’s involved:
Canada relies on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), private sponsors, referral organizations and other governments to identify and refer refugees for resettlement, according to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. This means that a Syrian refugee would have to leave their country and present themselves to one of these organizations before the Canadian authorities are even made aware of them.
2. Visa interviews and screening
This is where Canada enters the process. Once resettlement candidates have been identified, the government wants to interview them too. At the moment, according to Friesen, there are 15 staff in Beirut interviewing about 700 Syrian refugees a week. They’re hoping to interview 7,000 people by Christmas, he said, which would put them well-behind on the proposed schedule from the Liberals.
Visa officers review the files of the refugees, and they pass that step, all refugees undergo a medical examination and criminal and security checks before finally being accepted.
According to Janet Dench, the International Organization for Migration helps to arrange the travel of refugees that have been accepted by Canada. Normally, they buy a commercial plane ticket, but if there were very large numbers, that obviously wouldn’t work.
One alternative is to charter flights. Another is to arrange military airlifts. According to sources in the Department of National Defence, the military has been asked to explore the feasibility of airlifting large numbers of refugees, as well as temporarily housing them in military bases.
It’s worth mentioning that moving 25,000 people would take a lot of planes. A passenger Boeing 747 holds 467 people. It would take about 54 full flights to get everyone over.
4. Temporary shelter
When refugees finally arrive in Canada, they need a place to stay. In many cases, they’re taken care of by a Resettlement Assistance Program provider – a local organization under contract with the government to provide basic settlement services to refugees in their area.
COSTI is one such organization in the Greater Toronto Area, and they take in between 800 and 1,300 government-assisted refugees per year.
Refugees will come to COSTI directly from the airport, said Calla. They’re housed in temporary accommodations for an average of two weeks – they have room for about 90 people. When they have more refugees than they can house, as happened last summer, they look into other options, such as renting space in college dorms or local motels.
Calla isn’t sure where refugees would be housed if there were suddenly hundreds more of them at a time. Some options, like housing people in military barracks – an approach used 15 years ago with Kosovar refugees – could be contemplated, as well as maybe using more private sponsorships.
Dench suggests that if more family reunification applications were accepted, it would help get more Syrians over faster, and they would likely already have a place to stay.
5. Setting up
Refugees need more than just shelter, they need help with some basic parts of Canadian life. Resettlement organizations help with things like getting health coverage, getting a social insurance number, setting up a bank account, and accessing government financial assistance.
That amount is closely tied to provincial welfare rates, which in Ontario for a family of four would be about $1173 per month and vary based on the family size and number of dependants. Assistance is provided for up to a year or until the refugee is financially-independent, whichever comes first.
Refugees arriving at COSTI would also be able to access mental health services and counselling in their language, said Calla.
6. Permanent housing
Refugees can’t stay in shelters, dorms and barracks forever though. At some point, they need houses or apartments of their own. Resettlement agencies help to find accommodation for refugees – Calla says that his organization is pretty successful at that, and he doesn’t anticipate too many challenges finding housing for people in the GTA.
However, it could be tougher in areas without much low-income housing, said Dench. Having a heads-up from the government would help a lot, she said, that way local organizations could start searching for possible accommodations now, in preparation for future arrivals.
7. Longer-term needs
Once refugees have a place to live, health coverage and a bank account, it’s time for them to deal with other important, though less-pressing, needs. Again, there are many services which can help connect them with jobs, English or French language classes and help them get their kids enrolled in school.
Local school boards, health services and other groups would likely also appreciate some notice from the government, so that they can prepare for a possible influx of new demands for their services.
COSTI also provides classes on daily Canadian life: the laws, how to get around the city, and basic things like where and how to get groceries and other basic household needs.