Saturday January 09, 2016

John McCallum says social media vitriol directed at Syrian refugees is unfounded

Canadian Minister of Immigration John McCallum, right, speaks with a Syrian family inside their tent, during his visit to a refugee camp in the southern town of Ghaziyeh, near the port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015.

Canadian Minister of Immigration John McCallum, right, speaks with a Syrian family inside their tent, during his visit to a refugee camp in the southern town of Ghaziyeh, near the port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. (Bilal Hussein/Associated Press)

Listen 11:28

Syrian refugees are not jumping the queue for social housing, and are not displacing impoverished Canadians seeking government assistance, according to John McCallum, the minister of immigration and refugees.

A number of posts on social media have surfaced in recent weeks claiming that incoming refugees are receiving preferential treatment over our own citizens in dire straits.

One widely circulated graphic claims that Syrians received more money for food and shelter than a Canadian on welfare, a claim that CBC News has since debunked.

"These stories get around, and they are false," McCallum said in an interview with Terry Milewski on CBC Radio's The House.

"We have to be careful of things like that. You don't want refugees going to the front of the line for social housing when other Canadians have been waiting a long time. We are very careful to guard against that sort of thing," he said.

"That's why we have to find other means of accommodation and that's why I've asked the private sector to come forward — companies have given money — and I think we're addressing that issue without putting refugees to the front of the line."

But McCallum said while he has been hearing from a few concerned citizens about the government's ambitious resettlement goals, most Canadians are broadly supportive of the plan to support Syrians fleeing their war torn country.

"Polls say two thirds of Canadians do welcome the refugees and the rest, a few, are undecided or opposed. So I do think, especially as people see smiling faces at the airport, there's a lot of enthusiasm for welcoming the refugees.

"But there will always be some who are opposed for one reason or another," McCallum conceded. 

The immigration minister also said that the government had to pare back its initial campaign promise to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by the end of 2015 because they realized they might have been too ambitious.  

"I think once we came into power, it gradually came to our realization that if we wanted to do it well — we had to slow it down a bit. I think most Canadians agree, that 25,000 over four months is pretty fast, and the entire priority is to do it well, and that's what we're doing," McCallum said. 

The government will also ramp up the number of government-assisted refugees, as most of the Syrians who have arrived in Canada in recent weeks have been privately-sponsored by individual Canadians.

"By the time we get to the end of February, you'll have about 15,000 government-assisted refugees," McCallum said. "Because as time goes by, a higher and higher proportion will be government-assisted refugees. And then throughout the rest of 2016, we will for sure get [that number] up to 25,000."

But the focus alone shouldn't be on the number of refugees reaching our shores, McCallum said. He is equally fixated on properly integrating Syrians into Canadian life.

"I'm concerned at this point about settling them well, and welcoming them well, to make sure they are accommodated properly and, sooner rather than later, find work and become regular, productive Canadians.

"My focus is really on appropriate settlement and encouraging our new, soon-to-be Canadian, friends to become full-fledged Canadians in the workforce."