Ottawa agencies overwhelmed by fast pace of refugee arrivals

More than 450 Syrian refugees have arrived in Ottawa in the past two weeks and settlement agencies are feeling overwhelmed. Government officials say they can slow the pace so the agencies can catch up.

Government says it can slow the flow of refugees so settlement agencies can catch up

This family is among the 450 Syrian refugees who've arrived in Ottawa since the start of 2016. (CBC)

The current scale and speed of the Syrian refugee resettlement program is starting to overwhelm Ottawa settlement agencies and the people who work there.

"We need a little pause right now," said Carl Nicholson, executive director of the Catholic Centre for Immigrants in Ottawa. "Just to kind of get ourselves a little better organized."

The Catholic Centre for Immigrants is taking responsibility for government assisted refugees arriving in the city.
Carl Nicholson is executive director of Ottawa's Catholic Centre for Immigrants. (CBC)

Nicholson said his staff is quite happy to be working with the refugees, but he said the past couple of weeks have been hectic.

"Last week, about 150 people came in three days," said Nicholson. "Once we have the right structures in place, we'll be fine."

'People are tired'

So far, about 500 refugees have arrived in Ottawa, but Deborah Tunis, the bureaucrat heading up the federal resettlement project said this city should expect to take in more than double that number.

"We have been moving very quickly," said Tunis, who came out of retirement to become coordinator of the Syrian refugee resettlement process for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

"People are tired and if they signal they need a bit of a break, we'll put a pause on destinations to Ottawa for as much time as needs to happen so that other parts of the country step up."

About 1200 Syrians could be here by the end of February, although Tunis noted the city of Ottawa has said it could receive up to 2000 newcomers.

Tunis retired from the federal public service in 2014. Last fall, Tunis was asked by the Liberals to come back, and take on the newly-created role of special coordinator for resettlement at Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The department has committed to bring in 25,000 Syrians by the end of February.

"Working on the Syrian refugee issue right now, it's of a totally different scale. It's a once in a lifetime project," said Tunis.

Hundreds in temporary housing

Hundreds of government-assisted refugees are now staying in temporary housing in Ottawa, including two hotels. Settlement workers are busy trying to find homes for the large families seeking reasonably-priced, permanent shelter.

"I think government workers have been very busy processing and selecting over there in the Middle East. It all came together towards the end of the year and here we are," said Nicholson.

Tunis is working with provinces, territories, municipalities, settlement agencies, sponsorship agreement holders, the voluntary sector and the private sector to settle the Syrians in Canada.

The federal government committed $678 million over six years to help cities, provinces and agencies with their resettlement efforts.

"That's what I hope my legacy will be, fostering and furthering some of those connections between those players. It is a collective effort," said Tunis.

Syrian refugees 'very happy' in Ottawa

8 years ago
Duration 1:18
There are 450 Syrian refugees living in Ottawa hotels after arriving in Canada. CBC Ottawa spoke to some about their experience since arriving.