Metro Morning

Health minister Jane Philpott returns from Middle East confident in refugee process

Health minister Jane Philpott is back from touring a new refugee processing centre that opened this past Sunday in Amman, Jordan.

Minister tours refugee camp, called it a situation "none of us would want to be in"

A young Syrian refugee shows his athletic abilities off to Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum, third from right, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, second from right, and Health Minister Jane Philpott, right, as they tour the Zaatari Refugee Camp, near the city of Mafraq, Jordan, on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Thousands of Syrian refugees are heading to Canada in the coming months, but not much is known about who these refugees are and where exactly they're headed.

This week, Canadians may be one step closer to finding out after a new refugee processing centre opened this past Sunday in Amman, Jordan.

Federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott, who is also the chair of a cabinet committee in charge of overseeing the government's response to the refugee crisis, is back in Canada after a visit to the new centre.

"We were very impressed with the centre," she said on Metro Morning on Tuesday. 

The processing centre was set up by the Jordanian government in an old airport hangar, near two other airports in the city, one of which will be used to fly refugees to Canada.

There are multiple stations where Syrians will be interviewed and the screening process will take place, said Philpott.

On its first day of operation, though, about 100 refugees were processed. The goal is 500 refugees a day.

Despite the shortfalls, Philpott remained optimistic.

"We were incredibly impressed with the people who have put this together," said the minister. "It's set up in an incredibly efficient manner. They moved 100 refugees through the centre on Sunday. It was an incredibly smooth process for the first day. I have no doubt they will be able to ramp up their ability to work through the process to see 500 per day."

The refugee process

The refugee processing includes biometric scanning like fingerprints and interviews by "visa-processing professionals," who Philpott said will "find out the story of these refugees."

​The reception point is ready, lined with rows upon rows of grey plastic chairs. The interview booths are set up with white tables and blue banquet chairs flecked with gold. The military has 10 biometric machines ready to go, though on the first day only four were in operation.

Philpott was joined in Amman by Immigration Minister John McCallum and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. They flew to Amman late Saturday, spending the day meeting international aid and UN officials. They met Jordanian leaders on Sunday and then flew straight back to Ottawa.

Refugees whose cases are being processed at the Jordanian facility represent only some of the 15,000 Syrians the government is seeking to resettle itself. Applicants are being told to expect to travel by the end of February, the deadline the government has set.

Privately-sponsored refugees, who make up the majority of the 10,000 people the government says it will resettle by the end of this year, will not have their cases go through the registration centre but are likely to depart on flights from the same airport. Those planes could begin leaving as early as next week.

Visiting Zaatari refugee camp 

An estimated 4 million people have been declared refugees from the Syrian war.
Health Minister Jane Philpott talks about Canada's plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees, at a news conference in Ottawa, Tuesday, Nov. 24. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Some will come from the Zaatari refugee camp, which the ministers visited earlier Sunday. They were briefed by the camp manager and aid organizations on the challenges at hand, including ensuring adequate water supplies and food for the camp's 80,000 residents.

Philpott said she was struck by the scope of the issue.

"While obviously we're all thinking about 25,000 who will come to Canada, we need to remember there are more than a million refugees living here in the country," she said.

Philpott and her fellow minister, Sajjan, purchased paintings created by children at the camp. The one Philpott chose was painted by a 13-year-old boy named Hamza and depicts a woman trudging up a set of stairs, with a yellow sun setting against a blood red sky.On her back, a burden in the shape of Syria.

Philpott asked Hamza whom the woman represented, and he said no one in particular, just all women.

"Because women do carry countries on their backs," Philpott said.

Many of the refugees Canada will resettle will be women, some alone, some heads of families.

Since Nov. 4, 153 Syrian refugees have come to Canada and another 928 have been issued visas, according to the government.

"It's a sad situation to realize that this was not the first choices for these people," she said. "These people came to us under dire circumstances. Really their first choice would have been to stay in their homeland, in Syria, where they were probably born and raised and many of their family members remain."

Philpott called it a situation "none of us would want to be in." 

With files from The Canadian Press

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