Immigration Minister Chris Alexander says Canada will resettle 10,000 more Syrian refugees over the next three years in direct response to the United Nations Refugee Agency's global appeal to resettle 100,000 refugees worldwide.
"We are here today as we have been saying for some time to confirm that Canada is doing more," Alexander said during an announcement in Toronto on Wednesday.
- Canada's Syrian refugees wonder why they are being treated differently
- Canada considers prioritizing religious minorities in Syria refugee resettlement
Of the 10,000 Syrian refugees, Alexander said that approximately 60 per cent would be sponsored by private groups and 40 per cent would be sponsored by the government.
Canada's pledge comes as a report released Wednesday from the United Nations high commissioner for refugees says the number of Syrian refugees has outnumbered Afghans as the largest refugee population under the protection of the United Nations.
"At more than three million as of June 2014, Syrian refugees now account for 23 per cent of all refugees being helped by UNHCR worldwide," the report said.
The UN Refugee Agency welcomed Canada's "generous commitment" saying, in a written statement, "this substantial pledge is in keeping with Canada’s strong humanitarian tradition to offer resettlement to refugees worldwide."
Today's announcement also comes on the heels of intense criticism by immigration groups who said the government was not doing enough after the country fell behind on its previous commitment to take in 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014.
"As of today 1,285 refugees have been approved to come to Canada. Almost 1,100 of those are in Canada," Alexander said in Toronto.
That number includes 360 refugees sponsored by the government — 160 above its initial commitment of 200.
"We expect the remaining refugees to arrive in Canada by March 2015."
As CBC News reported on Jan. 1, the federal government said 1,063 Syrian refugees had arrived in Canada as of Dec. 29, 2013.
The government has also come under fire for saying that it will "prioritize" refugees by ethnic and religious minorities.
Today, a spokesman for Alexander told CBC News the government makes "no apologies" for that.
"Canada is focusing on vulnerable individuals and those facing persecution. We make no apologies for putting focus on people in need, some of whom are being persecuted based on their religious beliefs.
"Our priority is and will continue to be on those who are at risk because they are a religious minority, a sexual minority, or victims of rape," Kevin Ménard told CBC News in an email.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said he welcomed today's announcement but was skeptical of how the government would resettle 10 times more refugees given the lag in their previous commitment.
"I’m glad to see that minister Alexander has changed his position and realized that Canada has a role to play with regards to Syrian refugees. But this is only an announcement and we need to see an actual action plan on how they’re going to settle 10,000 refugees," Dewar said in a written statement on Wednesday.
Liberal immigration critic John McCallum expressed similar skepticism saying the government should be sponsoring the majority of the 10,000 refugees instead of leaving it to private groups.
"I am very skeptical. We could be waiting forever before 10,000 Syrian refugees arrive in Canada," McCallum said in a telephone interview from Toronto.
McCallum, who has called on the ambassador of religious freedoms to intervene on behalf of Syrian refugees, added he still has concerns about the government's prioritizing of refugees.
3,000 more Iraqi refugees
Alexander also announced that Canada would help resettle another 3,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of 2015, in addition to the 20,000 Iraqi refugees already resettled in Canada.
Canada's resettlement pledges came with an additional $90 million in humanitarian assistance for the region.
Of that, $50 million will help people affected inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The other $40 million will assist those affected by the ongoing crisis in Iraq, the government said.
As part of the humanitarian assistance, World Vision Canada received $2.3 million for its humanitarian work in northern Iraq.
Dave Toycen, the president and CEO of World Vision Canada, said in a statement that while the conflict in Iraq no longer dominates the headlines as it once did, over 400,000 have fled their homes.
"World Vision is grateful for the support announced today by the Government of Canada for our work with displaced Iraqis who have fled conflict within their own borders.
"With winter storms battering the Middle East ... World Vision will use these funds to provide warm clothing, money and other supplies to children and families in need," Toycen said.