How Canada and the U.S. compare on Syrian refugees

Although Canada and the United States have both committed to increasing the number of Syrian refugees they will receive, the numbers and the resettlement process differ for the two countries.

Costs and some practices vary but both countries base status on determination by UN agency

One-year-old Mohammad Mnaahe crawls away from his mother Wessam in the family's apartment on Nov. 30, 2015 in Irbid, Jordan. The Syrian refugee family is waiting for approval to immigrate to Canada. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Canada and the United States have both committed to increasing the number of Syrian refugees they will accept in the face of the global migration crisis and pressure from their European allies.

Although the goal of the two North American countries is the same — alleviating the plight of Syrians fleeing their war-torn country — the numbers and the resettlement process are not.

The U.S. has pledged to accept 10,000 refugees in the next year while Canada has said it will welcome 25,000 by next March.

Here's how the two countries compare:


U.S.: The annual federal budget for refugee resettlement assistance is $950 million, almost $3 per American (based on a 2014 population of 319 million) or $95,000 per refugee (based on the 10,000 arriving in the next year), according to the Migration Policy Institute. But private resettlement agencies and other institutions are shouldering more than half of the financial load.

Two young Syrian refugee girls smiles for the camera in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, near the city of Mafraq, Jordan, on Nov. 29, 2015. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Canada: Resettling one of the 25,000 Syrian refugees is estimated to cost Ottawa $35,000, or $900 million overall during the first year and $1.2 billion over the next six years. That puts the per capita cost at $25 for the first year (based on a 2014 Canadian population of 36 million), roughly eight times as much as in the U.S. Private sponsors pay for 40 per cent of refugees in the first twelve months, according to the Globe and Mail.

Refugee status and referral process

U.S.: According to Bloomberg, the UN refugee agency UNHCR, which determines refugee status, has referred 18,000 Syrian refugees for possible settlement in the U.S. The process from referral to resettlement usually takes 18 to 24 months.

Canada: Similar to the U.S. case, all of the 25,000 Syrians coming to Canada have already been designated by UNHCR. With few exceptions, Canada is only accepting women, children and the most vulnerable (complete families, threatened women and LGBT people).

Responsible authorities and adjudication

U.S.: The government and nine national Resettlement Support Centers in the States compile personal data and background information for security clearance.

Canada: No detailed plan has been issued to date. Visa officers at Citizenship and Immigration Canada process the individual cases here. According to the Globe and Mail, extra staff have been sent to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to help speed up the process.

Security checks before arrival

U.S.: First, the National Counterterrorism Center, the State Department and other security agencies screen the candidate in an interagency check for being a potential security risk, according to the White House.

Young Syrian refugees gather around Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum, second from left, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Health Minister Jane Philpott, right, as they tour the Zaatari Refugee Camp, near the city of Mafraq, Jordan, on Nov. 29, 2015. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Next, the refugee's fingerprints and photograph are taken in the camps and screened against FBI and Homeland Security databases. Syrians face another security layer called the Syria Enhanced Review. Each refugee has an in-person interview with a U.S. official in the country of asylum. The last step is a second interagency check to make sure no new information has been received.

Canada: Five hundred Canadian officials are now in the camps to interview each refugee and check his or her identity against Canadian, U.S. and international databases, the Globe and Mail reports, but few details have been revealed about the process overall.

Medical checkups and cultural orientation

U.S.: While waiting for final processing, a medical test and a cultural orientation, which includes information about rights and responsibilities, cultural adjustment and money management, take place in the camps, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Canada: A medical test is carried out abroad to make sure refugees are free of infectious diseases or tuberculosis. Service provider organizations provide cultural orientation.


U.S.: A Customs and Border Protection officer reviews refugee documentation and conducts additional security checks at one of five U.S. airports designated for refugee admissions.

Canada: Ottawa is covering transportation costs for the up to 900 refugees expected to arrive daily in Toronto and Montreal, largely on privately chartered aircraft. The military will provide airlift if necessary. Although Canada has issued almost 1,000 permanent resident visas to Syrian asylum seekers, there is still no definite timeline.

Settlement in local communities

U.S.: The government matches refugees to a national sponsor agency, which then allocates newcomers to local institutions across the country. The location criteria, according to the International Institute of St. Louis, include other families of the same nationality, available housing and jobs. Most are being sent to affordable, medium-sized cities like Boise, Idaho, which has accepted more refugees than Los Angeles and New York combined since 2012, according to the New York Times.

An employee from Wing Central Construction works on lights in one of the barracks that are being made ready to possibly house Syrian refugees at CFB Trenton in Trenton, Ont., on Dec. 1, 2015. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Canada: Asylum seekers will temporarily live on military bases and in housing including hotels and abandoned hospitals. After that, provinces, cities, the Red Cross and community organizations will resettle refugees to 36 cities across the country. Service provider organizations (SPOs) assist eligible refugees in a variety of ways, including counselling, interpretation and job services. Unlike in the U.S., most newcomers are expected to stay in the big cities.


U.S.: Each refugee receives an allowance (around $1,000) to meet basic needs for the first 90 days from the local resettlement agency, which also offers community orientation, assistance with social security and Medicaid, English classes and job search. According to the International Institute of St. Louis, refugees have to begin repaying their travel loans, which are separate from the allowance, within six months of arrival (up to $1,500 per person).

Canada: Private sponsors — individuals or groups — have to cover the settlement costs of 40 per cent (10,000) of the 25,000 refugees ($12,600 for an individual, $27,000 for a family of four) during the first year, the Globe and Mail reports. The remaining 15,000 asylum seekers will be assisted by the government.

Benjamin Bathke is a multimedia freelance journalist and a Global Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto.