The federal government will try to use video conferencing technology to process the visa applications of hundreds of Iraqi refugees destined for Canada who are now stranded in Syria.

The refugees, about 700 of whom are destined to come to the Toronto and southern Ontario area, have been accepted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Canada had also identified them as a priority group in need of protection.

Most of them are Christian and are being sponsored privately by various community and church groups across Canada. The groups provide financial and social support for the refugees when they arrive in the country. 

But in January, Canada closed its embassy and visa offices in Syria due to the uprising and escalating violence between government troops and the opposition. That meant the refugees, many of whom have been waiting years, could not have their visa applications completed. Since then, the Iraqi refugees have been caught in the crossfire and are facing an uncertain future.

Bill Brown, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, told CBC News in a statement that the files for the Iraqis have now been transferred to Beirut and Amman. He added that arrangements are now being made to attempt to conduct interviews with the Iraqi refugees through video conferencing at the UN’s office in Damascus and connecting with visa officers in other parts of the Middle East. The plan was to start this week.

Meeting this weekend in Fredericton

The preliminary results of this experiment will be discussed this coming weekend when representatives of about 85 sponsorship groups and government officials gather for a national meeting of the in Fredericton.

Dr. Martin Mark, director of the Office for Refugees for the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT), said the plan offers hope for the refugees, many of whom have become discouraged. He said he and others are attempting to keep in touch with them through emails and social media. But he said it’s difficult because many are desperate and in fear of their lives.


Dr. Martin Mark, director of the Office for Refugees for the Archdiocese of Toronto, updates sponsors on the situation of refugees in Syria. (Courtesy of Dr. Martin Mark)

"We have hundreds of refugees who we initiated to bring to Canada," Mark said. "We have serious problems with the security in Syria … innocent people can get attacked. They are really in great danger."

Mark has been handling the files for about 700 Iraqi refugees in Syria. He and other church and private sponsorship groups from across Canada have been working with federal immigration officials to try to get the refugees out of Syria and on their way to Canada.

Earlier this month, the children of one of the refugees was injured at their school after a massive explosion killed more than 40 people in Damascus. Mark said the father sent an email, describing how his son was covered in blood and pleading with him to help get his family out.

"It is a nightmare. You never know what will happen tomorrow and we really need to see all the efforts possible to move these people before it is too late," Mark said.

Mark, a refugee from Hungary more than a decade ago, said there have been three cases where families have given up, choosing instead to return Iraq where he says they will inevitably be in danger.

Lessons learned from Syrian tragedy

Debra Presse is the director of refugee resettlement for the federal government in Ottawa. She says the government had recommended the refugees from Iraq be processed in Syria, but that was well before anyone knew or anticipated the uprising in Syria.

"What has happened in Syria is certainly a tragedy not just for Syria but for our private sponsorship as well," Presse told CBC News. "What happened in Syria certainly was a good lesson learned for us," she said. "We have to have more than one visa office for referred populations."