Syrian refugee backlog blamed on federal government cuts

Advocates trying to help re-settle Syrian refugees in Canada say cuts to the federal bureaucracy add to the problems of bringing Syrians here.

Federal government job cuts have increased problems with bringing Syrians refugees to Canada, say advocates trying to help those refugees re-settle.

Evidence points to a bureaucratic backlog of files inside Citizenship and Immigration Canada, as an internal government report produced late last year blames the backlog on too few staff in the department’s centralized office in Winnipeg. That office processes privately sponsored refugee claims.

The report states the backlogs are at "an unprecedented high" and warns it could take several years to catch up.     

Peter Showler is the former head of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board. (Peter Showler)
Peter Showler, a professor at the University of Ottawa and former chairman of Canada's immigration and refugee board, called the long processing times inexcusable.

Showler spent time last spring working for the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) in Lebanon and he said the delays caused human suffering and misery.

"There's no way of knowing whether it's ministerial policy or gross inefficiency. In either way, the delays are beyond belief," Showler said.

Feds promised to bring over 1,300 Syrian refugees

The Canadian government announced last year it would bring 1,300 Syrian refugees into Canada. The majority of refugees are sponsored by private groups, mostly churches, but to date only a couple hundred refugees have actually arrived.

In comparison, Sweden has taken in 30,000 Syrians with a population that is about one quarter of Canada's.

The authors of the internal CIC report recommend the government hire more permanent staff, as well as hire some temporary workers to conduct a "blitz" to clear the backlog.

"Improvements to process accountability and processing efficiency cannot be realized without having a sufficient number of dedicated staff in place to handle core functions and to eliminate the backlog that has developed over time," the report reads.

This snippet of the internal report from Citizenship and Immigration Canada details the need for more staff to help eliminate a backlog of refugee claims. (CBC)

'Damning report,' expert says

"It’s a damning report. It doesn’t beat around the bush," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

"There have been a lot of cuts in Citizenship and Immigration Canada, notably they’ve closed offices across Canada … It’s quite clear that things have not been going well."

Departmental officials won’t say if more staff have been hired since the report was released late last year. But they said efforts are being made to speed up the process.

"Processing is done according to priority, with Syrian files currently identified as a priority," according to a statement from a CIC spokesperson.

That concerns people like Showler, though, who wonder about other non-Syrian refugees currently in the queue.

"That means someone who was supposed to come from Thailand, Burma, Africa …that means they're being delayed even further," he said.

Showler said in the past, Canada has acted much faster to help refugees escape to safety.

"We did it for Yugoslavia. We brought in 5,000 and we did it within one year … we know how to do this. This is an issue of political will," he added.

'We have brought over 1,500 Syrians to Canada,' minister says

On Monday in the House of Commons, NDP MP Andrew Cash cited the staffing cuts inside Citizenship and Immigration Canada and asked the minister in charge if he'd keep his 2013 promise to bring Syrian refugees to Canada now.

The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander, replied, "We have brought over 1,500 Syrians to Canada."

But refugee advocacy groups say Alexander is mixing up his numbers. They say that number includes Syrians who resettled prior to 2013, some of whom were already in Canada when they were granted refugee status.

"The real question is this," Alexander went on to say. "What is the NDP going to do for the millions more people who cannot be resettled and for the millions more people who are still displaced inside Iraq…One of the solutions is targeted military action… Why will the New Democrats not even consider it?"


Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On found at: You can reach her at


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?