Ontario prepares for refugee influx: timing and magnitude unknown

A family of Syrian refugees walks to Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. Leslie Young/Global News

They don’t know how many people are coming, when they’ll arrive, what services they’ll need or who will pay for them. But Ontario’s preparing to welcome an unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees.

The federal Liberals are standing by their promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by January, which gives them about six and a half weeks, if you include Christmas and Boxing Day.

But specifics have been scant: the Feds haven’t said how people will be transported to Canada or where they’ll stay once they arrive. While the original promise was for 25,000 government-assisted refugees, references to Canadians’ vocal eagerness to help desperate people suggests the government may also rely on private sponsorships.

READ MORE: The logistic nightmare of resettling 25,000 refugees in 2 months

Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Minister John McCallum won’t even say when the government will fulfill its promise to reinstate health-care coverage for refugees and refugee applicants in limbo. A statement attributed to him last week said it could be weeks or months.

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READ MORE: Canada’s scrambling to resettle 25,000 Syrians but restoring refugee health care could take months

So Ontario, which has traditionally welcomed the plurality of Canada’s refugees, is trying to prepare for anything.

The provincial Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care sent a memo to the health community last week, telling them to prepare to care for a new wave of refugees even if they don’t know who is coming and when.

“There are many unknowns at this point including confirmation of resettlement locations, timing and pacing of resettlement and total numbers of refugees,” the memo reads.

“What is known is that Ontario will likely be a major point of entry for incoming refugees over the next few months and we need to ensure the health system is ready, willing and able to assist.”

Ministry spokesperson David Jensen said the province doesn’t know what additional care these newcomers will need following their routine medical exam, which the federal government organizes and whose cost refugees are expected to cover once they find their financial feet.

“Public Health Ontario is working to determine whether any additional plans may be required,” he wrote in an email Friday.

Nor does the province know whether it will be footing the bill for the new refugees’ health expenditures.

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Government-assisted refugees get full health coverage; because of the previous federal government’s cuts, which the new government has yet to reverse, privately sponsored refugees get partial coverage.

While Ontario has set up a temporary health program of its own to fill the gap, the resulting paperwork has become so complex that many health-care practitioners refuse to provide refugees with health care altogether.

REFUGEE HEALTH CUTS: Even those who qualify get turned away

Researchers and health-care workers have noted this places a greater burden on emergency care and puts other members of the public at risk as sick people delay treatment and get sicker.

Nonetheless, “Ontario has made it clear that we are ready to support the work of the federal government” when it comes to refugee resettlement, Jensen wrote. And the province  is committed to providing “all the necessary supports for this at-risk population deserves.”

“From its earliest days, Ontario has been a place for people fleeing war, famine, persecution and other tragic circumstances to build a new life for themselves and their families.”


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