Immigration groups are urging the Canadian government to take responsibility for sponsoring a minimum of 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years, ahead of World Refugee Day on Friday.
The Office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asked countries around the world in February to take in 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016.
The Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance, a national umbrella group that represents provincial associations who support the settlement and integration of newcomers to Canada, is urging Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to respond to that appeal by agreeing to sponsor at least 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016.
"We should step forward to offer the UNHCR a minimum of 10,000 resettlement spaces or 10 per cent of the current appeal over the next two years," the group said in a letter to Alexander dated June 4.
"We would like to propose that the 10,000 additional resettlement spaces be considered through the government assisted refugee program," said the letter to Alexander dated June 4.
The alliance is proposing the government resettle 2,830 Syrian refugees in Ontario in 2015 and 2016, 2,720 in the Prairies, 2,484 in Quebec, 1,134 in B.C., and 830 in the Atlantic provinces.
Government-assisted refugees vs. private sponsors
Alexander told CBC News on Thursday that he welcomed the group's proposal and that while the Canadian government is considering the proposal by the UN refugee agency to resettle more Syrian refugees over the next two years, it has not yet come to a decision.
'We know we'll be able to do much more if we combine our government assistance with innovative forms of private sponsorship.' — Chris Alexander, immigration minister
The immigration minister did not rule out taking in a high number of government-assisted refugees but said the country could take in a lot more refugees if more Canadians opened up their doors to sponsoring refugees from Syria.
"It's possible to imagine a very large number of government-assisted [Syrian refugees.] We know we'll be able to do much more if we combine our government assistance with innovative forms of private sponsorship," Alexander said.
Alexander promised the government would respond to the UN refugee agency's plea soon.
"Stand by for the announcement, we will do one. We will have an ambitious goal for Canada, but we need to prepare the ground with our private sponsors."
"We do have a goal of 1,300 for this year, which is actually more ambitious than any other country, which we will meet and surpass."
But Martin Mark, the refugee sponsorship co-ordinator for the Catholic archdiocese in Toronto, doubts the government will meet that target.
Mark told CBC News that, as it stands now, private sponsors can’t get the support they need from the federal government.
"They need a very serious change which must include open communication with the society, with stakeholders, with sponsors. Otherwise, there is no way."
How many Syrian refugees in Canada?
When the Canadian government agreed in July 2013 to resettle 1,300 refugees by the end of 2014, it said it would take responsibility for resettling 200 "extremely vulnerable" Syrian refugees while another 1,100 would be privately sponsored.
That commitment was a response to another appeal by the UN refugee agency for countries to take in 30,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014.
Alexander has come under fire in recent days and weeks for not being able to say how many of the 1,300 Syrian refugees are already in Canada.
"We already have 1,150 refugees here. We've already approved the 200 government-assisted refugees for this year and we're going beyond that," Alexander said again today.
A government official who was not authorized to speak on the record told CBC News today that the 1,150 Syrian refugees include:
- At least 200 government-assisted refugees.
- An undetermined number of privately sponsored refugees.
- An undetermined number of asylum seekers.
Refugee groups have been claiming for some time that the 1,150 cited were Syrians who were already in Canada, either visiting or studying, when the war broke out and have since applied for asylum.
Alexander said there is room for Canadians to sponsor more Syrian refugees.
He appealed to Canadians to see what they can do to ensure their "tax dollars and resources … go as far as they possibly can to help Syria."