Liberal government still holding back detail on Syrian refugee plan

OTTAWA – The Liberal cabinet met Thursday to review its plan for the resettlement of Syrian refugees, but offered little public detail – sowing confusion and frustration about what, exactly, is supposed to happen next, and how.

Neither the prime minister nor the immigration minister were initially clear when asked directly whether their promise to resettle 25,000 Syrians by the end of the year would be the exclusive work of the government, or whether private sponsors would play a role.

The Liberal platform had committed to immediately increasing the number of Syrian refugees coming to Canada via government channels to 25,000, but there was no deadline attached. During the campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had set a target date of Jan. 1, 2016 to resettle that many people, but hadn’t explained how.

Later Thursday, the government moved to explain the difference.

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WATCH: Immigration Minister John McCallum says Liberals committed to bringing refugees to Canada by end of the year

Those they are hoping to have in Canada by year’s end will be chosen from both private and government applications for a total of 25,000 people, the Immigration department said, with most being government-sponsored.

“Additional government sponsored refugees will arrive into the new year as the government meets a specific target of 25,000 government sponsored Syrian refugees,” department spokesperson Diane Laursen said in an e-mail.

The news that some privately-sponsored cases would be among the first group arriving was good news for Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

“We welcome this adjustment: it avoids having privately sponsored Syrians put on hold to rush the (government assisted refugees) by the 31 Dec. deadline and it gives a bit more time for the total number of (government assisted refugees) to be brought to Canada,” she said in an e-mail.

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How many Syrians in total will actually arrive in Canada is unknown, nor by when.

There are about 10,000 applications currently in the pipeline for Syrian refugees under commitments made by the previous Conservative government. Since January, private groups have submitted close to 6,000 applications themselves.

“It will be a tremendous challenge to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees but it’s something I have a great deal of confidence in,” Trudeau said Thursday.

“Canadians across the country have demonstrated openness and a desire and wish to do more.”

There are an estimated 4.2 million people now considered to be refugees from the ongoing civil war in Syria and the UN is seeking new and permanent homes for about 10 per cent.

The original draft plan for the Canadian resettlement program was devised by the sub-cabinet committee tasked with that purpose earlier this week and presented to the full Liberal cabinet for review Thursday.

It contains a range of proposals, including how officials could handle the potentially complex security issues.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Thursday he doesn’t see the need for a massive influx of new resources out of Canada’s border services or spy agency to handle that element of the program.

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“They believe they can conduct the necessary work within the project proposal that’s being put forward,” he said.

Screening, Goodale added, can be done both overseas and in Canada.

Also in the plan is what will happen to the refugees once they’re actually here, from where they’ll live in the short-term to what happens after that.

Settlement agencies – who are expected to shoulder a great deal of that responsibility – were scheduled to have a conference call with government officials on Friday to hear more.

“Everybody is waiting – the provinces, the municipalities, everybody that has got a role play they are just wanting to get something firm to work with,” Dench said.


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