Canadian immigration officials appear to have quietly sped up Syrian refugee applications following months of criticism.
Almost a year ago, the government promised to bring 1,300 Syrians to Canada by the end of 2014. Refugee advocates have accused Ottawa of failing to live up to that promise, claiming that they know of no privately sponsored refugees who have arrived in Canada as part of the program announced last year.
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But there has been sudden progress in recent weeks, some organizations say.
“It is unbelievable, because normally we see the overseas processing actually takes two to three years. Now it can be six to eight months. So we are expecting our first arrivals next month,” said Martin Mark, who runs the refugee program for the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada has so far not responded to questions about the apparent acceleration in approving claims.
Danny Ramadan, a Syrian refugee living in Beirut, said he and his partner received a telephone call from the Canadian Embassy there earlier this week. An official asked them to come to a meeting the next day to discuss their refugee application, which had been sent to the embassy six months ago.
Within 24 hours, Ramadan said they had their initial approval to come to Vancouver as refugees, pending a medical assessment.
'We started dancing literally'
“It was a very emotional moment,” recalled Ramadan. “Both of us just kept calm until we left the embassy and then we started dancing literally in the streets of Beirut.”
Two days later, another couple in Beirut won the same speedy approval after waiting for months. Ramadan said an official at the embassy told him they are preparing for many more interviews in the weeks to come.
Ron Rosell of Vancouver has been in touch with both couples as part of his effort to bring them to Canada. He expressed both surprise and satisfaction at the breakthrough, believing it is at least partly due to a barrage of questions from the media and opposition politicians about the government’s promise to help Syrian refugees.
'We will be leaving no stone unturned to make sure that we move faster to meet the needs of those who need it, who need our help most.' - Chris Alexander, citizenship and immigration minister
“This is an exceptional situation and I think it is in response to some of the pressure that has been applied,” Rosell said.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has refused to say exactly how many of the 1,300 refugees Canada promised to bring to Canada have arrived in the country.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) suggested close to 200 Syrians, assisted exclusively by the federal government, are in Canada or on their way here.
The other 1,100 are meant to be helped by private sponsors. Those sponsors are often groups of people, organized through community or church organizations, who raise funds and support refugees once they are in Canada.
A slow and bureaucratic system
Both of the couples who recently won approval in Beirut are homosexual; one gay, the other lesbian. Last year, then immigration minister Jason Kenney identified gay men as part of a group of Syrian refugees facing great danger.
Rosell suggested that factor may have helped to speed their applications. He wants to sponsor more refugees, but he admits to frustration with a system that is still slow and overly bureaucratic.
“The problem is that it is a very drawn out process. And you are expected as sponsors to become very involved at the outset,” he said.
Earlier this year, Alexander conceded the current system for processing refugees was not moving fast enough.
"We will be leaving no stone unturned to make sure that we move faster to meet the needs of those who need it, who need our help most," he said.
Last week, Alexander promised Canada will respond to new requests from the UNHCR and Canadian organizations to bring thousands more Syrians in the next two years.
"We want to put together a plan that gets maximum value and does the most good for refugees," he told reporters during an event to mark World Refugee Day at Ottawa City Hall.
"We don't have that plan finalized just yet."
The Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance has called on Alexander to commit to sponsoring at least 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016.
In an interview with CBC News, Alexander said he welcomed the group's proposal, but said the government has not yet come to a decision on how many Syrian refugees Canada will ultimately accept.
"It's possible to imagine a very large number of government-assisted [Syrian refugees]," he told CBC News.
"We know we'll be able to do much more if we combine our government assistance with innovative forms of private sponsorship ... We will have an ambitious goal for Canada, but we need to prepare the ground with our private sponsors."
In the meantime, Ramadan and his partner are getting ready for their move to Vancouver. Ramadan, a journalist, admitted to feeling some guilt at leaving when so many other Syrians remain in refugee camps, looking for help.
“At the end of the day, you are happy that you are getting out of a bad situation,” Ramadan said. “But at the same time, you feel there are so many other people staying in a bad situation.”