The Liberal government says Canada will complete the resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees two months later than anticipated, conceding that such a massive program could not be carried out with 37 days left until the end of the year.
The government announced on Tuesday it will identify all 25,000 refugees by its self-imposed deadline of Dec. 31, 2015, but only 10,000 will arrive by year's end. The rest will arrive by March 2016.
"They will include a mix of privately sponsored and government assisted refugees," said Health Minister Jane Philpott in Ottawa on Tuesday.
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"The remaining 15,000 — mostly government-assisted refugees — it is our goal that they be resettled in Canada in January and February of 2016."
"Full medical exams and security screening will be completed overseas prior to arriving in Canada," said the health minister, adding that "further screening for communicable diseases will be done upon arrival, as is the usual process for all travellers to Canada."
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum said the extra time was needed to give host communities more time to prepare to receive the refugees.
"There are a lot of moving parts here," said McCallum, "so we are happy to take a little more time because that allows us to be more prepared … with places for them to live, more prepared to transfer them almost immediately to places where they can be in the longer term."
The military will be assisting the government here and abroad, said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
The Department of Defence will assist immigration officials with the screening and processing of refugees overseas prior to their arrival to Canada.
"More specifically, said Sajjan, "we will be assisting with medical screening and with the processing of applications including assistance with the collection of biometrics."
Syrians will be coming to Canada from refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Sajjan said the air force is preparing to airlift refugees to Canada every 48 hours if needed.
Other highlights of the plan include:
- Flying Syrian refugees to Toronto and Montreal largely on privately chartered aircraft, with the military providing airlifts if necessary.
- Resettling the refugees to 36 cities across the country, 13 in Quebec and 23 in the rest of Canada. The government did not provide a list.
- The Canadian Armed Forces will temporarily lodge up to 6,000 refugees on bases in Ontario and Quebec.
- Refugees will include complete families, women at risk, gays and lesbians, and single men identified as vulnerable due to membership in the LGBT community or those who are accompanying parents as part of a family.
- Applicants must be registered with the UN Refugee Agency or the government of Turkey.
Thousands of applicants now being processed for privately sponsored refugees will be included as part of that commitment, but they are in addition to the 3,089 Syrians who have already arrived in Canada between Jan. 1, 2014, and Nov. 3, 2015.
'Robust' security screening
With security concerns emerging here at home and south of the border following the recent attacks in Paris and elsewhere in the world, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the country's security would not be compromised.
Goodale said Canada's "robust, multi-layered approach" to security would see various federal departments working in conjunction with the country's security and intelligence agencies.
Canadian officials will interview every refugee and check their identity against Canadian and U.S. databases.
"Before anyone gets on a plane to come to Canada, the security screening will be … fully completed overseas," said Goodale. "If there is any doubt about an application or an interview or any of the data, the file will simply be put aside and held for further consideration at a later time."
Goodale said the Canada Border Services Agency will screen the refugees upon arrival, as it does with the estimated 270,000 travellers that come to Canada on any given day.
The resettlement program and integration supports will cost an estimated $678 million over six years, over the $250 million the Liberals budgeted in their election platform.
Tories take credit for 'head start'
The year-end deadline was an election campaign promise from the Liberal Party, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been under pressure from provincial and federal politicians to slow down the process to allow time for proper screening.
The Opposition Conservatives welcomed Trudeau's decision to slow the pace of resettlement and took some credit for initiating the flow of Syrian refugees that will arrive here by year's end.
"Approximately 10,000 refugees had either been processed or were in the final stages of processing. That work gives the current government a tremendous head start in aiding Syrian refugees," said immigration critic Michelle Rempel, following the government's announcement.
Government officials told reporters in a briefing today that the bulk of the 10,000 refugees set to arrive here by year's end will be privately sponsored.
'I think it's more than a smile, it's more than hope and it's more than unicorns.' - Michelle Rempel, immigration critic
Rempel said the Conservatives would push the government for answers on a number of issues including "plans for caring for the refugees upon arrival and, specifically, the real costs of the plan, impacts on provincial governments, and the involvement of the Canadian Armed Forces."
"It's one thing to inspire Canadians, it's another thing to be accountable to them," said Rempel. "I think it's more than a smile, it's more than hope and it's more than unicorns. You need to have plan and that's what we'll be holding the government to account on."
Rempel said the Conservatives would also continue to call on the Liberals not to pull out of the air campaign in the U.S.-led mission against ISIS.
The NDP's immigration, refugee and citizenship critic, Jenny Kwan, issued a statement Tuesday saying the Liberal plan calls for 10,000 fewer government-sponsored refugees than promised during the election campaign.
The NDP also has concerns about "picking and choosing refugees," as well as the growing costs of the plan that have now grown to "more than three times" what the Liberals promised during the campaign.