The Conservative government said Saturday it will speed up the processing of refugee applications in an effort to bring in "thousands more" Syrians and Iraqis by the end of 2015.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said the new measures mean the 10,000 Syrian refugees the government previously promised to resettle in the next three years would instead be brought to Canada by September 2016 — "a full 15 months earlier than anticipated," he told reporters in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.
Syrians and Iraqis fleeing civil war and sectarian conflict will no longer have to prove they are convention refugees under the United Nations Refugee Agency, but will be presumed to be refugees by Canadian authorities for the purposes of vetting their applications.
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The UN has conceded it has been overwhelmed by claims for refugee status in recent months, resulting in a considerable backlog of applications.
"Today, by designating them differently, we are greatly expanding the potential for candidates and sponsorship with the private partners across Canada," said Alexander, who's running for re-election in the riding of Ajax, Ont., for the Oct. 19 federal vote.
"We will move quickly and above all responsibly — security screening will remain the top priority," he added.
Alexander also said the government would deploy additional officers to missions abroad and that applications from Syrians and Iraqis will be handled within six months of being filed.
"Some of our officers have already reached the missions that are most involved in the resettlement efforts," he said. "We will have more human resources hitting the ground in the coming days and weeks."
"We will do all of that by cutting red tape," the minister said in French, adding that a special co-ordinator will be appointed to handle the overall file of Syrian and Iraqi refugees by working with community partners and other levels of government.
On the Canadian side, Alexander said the government is doubling the size of the workforce at the Winnipeg processing centre where all applications are handled.
The government would also allow groups of five and families to sponsor those who have not yet received convention refugee status.
The cost of these measures, Alexander said, will be $25 million over two fiscal years.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis facing the Middle East and Europe became a major issue on the campaign trail after it was revealed that the family of a drowned Syrian toddler had hoped to come to Canada.
A photo the three-year-old boy, Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a Turkish beach, made headlines around the world and put the Tories on the defensive.
Kurdi's aunt lives in the Vancouver area and had failed in a refugee sponsorship bid for the young boy's uncle earlier this year. One of the roadblocks to the Kurdi family's reunification was their lack of convention refugee status from the UN.
The Conservatives faced fierce criticism from political rivals that they have not done enough to help Syrians escaping the ongoing violence despite having made an announcement in August that they would seek to bring in 10,000 Syrians in addition to the previous pledge — a campaign commitment that a new government would have to implement, Alexander said.
The Tories also created a Syrian emergency relief fund, which took effect last Saturday, that would match donations from Canadians to registered charities up to $100 million.
However, fewer than 2,500 have been resettled in Canada since the government first began accepting refugees from Syria in 2013.
Both the NDP and Liberals have offered up their own plans.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has said on the campaign trail that a New Democratic government would resettle 10,000 Syrians before the end of the year and 46,000 by 2019. He has also stressed the need for more Canadian immigration officials to be on the ground in the Middle East.
For his part, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has touted his party's even more ambitious plan, saying a Grit government would bring in up to 25,000 refugees from Syria by January, 2016, and commit $200 million to help new arrivals settle in Canada and to help the UN manage refugee camps in the Middle East.
Rivals weigh in
The opposition parties who have been clamouring for faster government handling of the crisis — and for accepting increased numbers of refugees — gave only grudging approval.
While Canadians, from individual sponsors to city mayors and provincial premiers, have been acting, Harper has been stonewalling, Liberal candidate John McCallum said in a release.
"Today he recognized that the Conservative government's policies were failing," said the Liberal. "He has refused to provide leadership on this issue, continually hiding behind fear mongering and bureaucratic roadblocks."
NDP candidate Paul Dewar said his party welcomes the measure to have a high-level bureaucrat co-ordinate efforts to resettle refugees in Canada, as well as the government axing the requirement that applicants have UN refugee status.
However, Dewar said, "it's not acceptable that we have to wait a full year to process those 10,000," adding that questions still remain about the details of the plan.
"Why can't we do this before Christmas? How many people are we actually going to put overseas to process things? And the big question is, is this going to include health-care benefits for those refugees coming in?"
But Alexander defended the Tory plan, saying it is the most prudent way to speed up the process while ensuring security remains the top priority.
"We did not make up this plan on the back of a napkin or pull it out of thin air. We looked carefully at our capacity. We looked carefully at the steps and procedures to keep Canada and Canadians safe," he said.