As the Liberal government gears up to meet its promise to bring 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015, experts say time may be too short to effectively settle refugees and navigate security concerns.
“The numbers are not difficult numbers. The timeline is a difficult timeline,” said Naomi Alboim, a Queen’s University professor and former deputy minister of citizenship in Ontario.
With more than four million Syrian refugees in need, the first order of business will be identifying those to bring to Canada. Government-sponsored refugees are typically referred to Canada by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which confirms their refugee status and passes on the most urgent cases. Canadian visa officers then review their claims, and put refugees through security checks and health screenings. The process can take months, if not years.
Experts say the timeline calls for the type of alternative approach that Canada employed to resettle 60,000 Indochinese boat people in 1979 and 1980, and to airlift more than 5,000 Kosovar refugees into the country in 1999.
The Kosovar refugees, who were fleeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing, were quickly moved. “You just do the basics in terms of entry into Canada on a temporary basis, which includes a basic security screening,” said Dench. They could apply for permanent residency later.
In the case of the Indochinese boat people, the Canadian government sent personnel to set up tables in refugee camps and process applications there. The refugees than travelled to Canada on chartered planes.
“These staff worked 18-, 20-hour days,” said Michele Millard, coordinator of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. “I’ve heard stories of them falling asleep at their desk and then waking up and continuing the lineup. That sense of urgency was there.”
These alternative approaches require Canada to pick refugees and decide whether to focus on groups that have been especially brutalized by ISIS, such as Syria’s Yazidi minority, or on everyone fleeing the dangerous civil war, said Guidy Mamann, an immigration lawyer based in Toronto.
“Normally, in refugee law, we are looking to protect those who are persecuted, those who suffer the greatest,” he added.
But Canada, which relies on UNHCR for refugee referrals, has no system for picking refugees by itself. In addition, most Syrian refugees are outside of camps, making them harder to identify.
“With the Indochinese refugees, there were refugees in refugee camps and our visa officers went into those refugee camps and did that selection and there was a whole system in place. So you could select and move people fairly quickly,” said Alboim, who was the head of resettlement programs in Ontario during the Indochinese boat people crisis.
Security concerns are also significant, said Mamann. “I believe we should be protecting people, but there is also the question of security. Keep in mind that the Boston bombers were a couple of brothers who came to the United States as refugees.”
“The agencies who are typically tasked with security function are now going to be scrambling,” he added, explaining that the ongoing conflict, as well as the fact that many refugees have lost basic documents, makes background checks extra-challenging, if not impossible, on a deadline.
Once the refuges are selected, the government must bring them to Canada. Typically, it works with the International Organization for Migration to book flights, but, to speed things up, it could charter planes or use those belonging to the Department of National Defence, said Alboim.
Next comes resettlement. The government, which took in just 7,573 government-assisted refugees in 2014, will have to ramp up its partnership with groups that provide housing, health care, English or French classes and other services to refugees.
The main bottleneck will be housing, said Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, an agency that resettles refugees in Toronto. Government-assisted refugees are typically placed in temporary housing for a few weeks while settlement agencies help them find a more permanent place to stay.
“That particular initial process would be hard-pressed to accommodate 25,000 in two months,” said Calla. In order to meet its goals, the government will have to find an alternative like it did with Kosovar refugees, who were temporarily housed on military bases.
But services for refugees do have enough capacity in other areas and are gearing up for the intake, said Calla. Earlier this month, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants held a meeting with dozens of groups to plan their response to the Syrian crisis.
The level of enthusiasm for receiving Syrian refugees from the general population also bodes well, said Dench.
“We wouldn’t recommend getting too hung up on the end of December date if it took a few extra weeks to help people arrive. It’s better to do it well rather than to force the issue,” she said.