Canada falling behind on promise to Syria's refugees

Canada promised almost a year ago to take in 1,300 Syrian refugees, but so far only 10 have arrived, CBC News has learned. Meanwhile, as fingers are being pointed, the UN is asking Canada to take in even more because of the growing humanitarian crisis.

Minister says he will consider new UN request to take in greater number

Syrian families wait to register at the UNHCR centre in Tripoli, Lebanon. Over three million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war in their country; at least one million are living in UN-sponsored camps in the Middle East. (Associated Press)

The UN agency responsible for refugees is calling on Canada to increase the number of Syrian refugees it is willing to resettle because of the deepening crisis there.

Last summer, Canada committed to taking in 1,300 Syrians by the end of 2014. So far, though, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander estimated no more than 10 have arrived in Canada from refugee camps in the Middle East.

Alexander said their arrival had been slowed because the UN had only just started to identify and refer those most in need to Ottawa.

But those involved in sponsoring potential refugees here point to a different problem.

Martin Mark is the director of the Office for Refugees for the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, and his desk is piled high with files of dozens of Syrians wanting to come to Canada.

Part of the challenge, Mark said, is the complicated system for sponsoring these people.

He said a move to centralize refugee claims processing in Winnipeg in 2012 has slowed things down. He said it is far different from past efforts to bring in refugees, like from the war in Iraq.

"In the best time, when the government really did its best to speed up the process for Iraqis, it was about eight to nine months processing time. It was wonderful, excellent. Now we expect the Syrians, in the best-case scenario, to take two to three years," said Mark.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander told CBC News he will consider the new UN request to take in more Syrian refugees. He also suggested the UN has been slow to identify those suitable for Canada's help. (Canadian Press)

Of Canada's total commitment, 1,100 are to be privately sponsored, while the government will take responsibility for 200 of those deemed vulnerable.

Seen in some lights, it is a significant number, but it pales beside the three million or so people the UN High Commission for Refugees estimates have fled Syria, and it is now urging nations around the world to offer refuge to a total of 130,000 Syrians by the end of 2016.

"It does constitute the biggest displacement situation in the world right now," said Melissa Fleming of the UNHRC in an interview from Geneva. "We are at a breaking point."

Fleming said the UN welcomes Canada's commitment to take in 1,300 people by the end of this year, but she is asking for more.

"We would like to see Canada increase those numbers, and we are in discussions with Canada and we hope they will decide to increase those numbers," she said.

Canada to consider UN request

Alexander has not yet said whether Canada will accede to the new UN request — he told CBC News he would consider it — but he has been under pressure in Parliament to take in more.

Liberal MP Stephane Dion pointed to Sweden, a country with a third of Canada's population, but which has welcomed nearly 15,000 displaced Syrians in the last few years.

Refugees taken in by Canada during previous humanitarian crises. Source: Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. (CBC)

"Why are the Conservatives behaving so pathetically in the face of this humanitarian disaster," Dion asked.

Alexander's reply was that Canada is "at the top of the list" with its promise to welcome 1,300 displaced Syrians.

For Yakdan and Gamila Nissan, this is not about the thousands or millions of Syrians who have fled their homes. Instead, it comes down to one person, Gamila's 60-year-old sister, Mira.

"She had no food, no electricity, no water, no reason to live. She just took some clothes and she left home," said Gamila of her sister's decision to flee northern Syria last year.

The Nissans, who live in suburban Toronto, have been trying to bring Mira to live with them for months. She is currently living in Lebanon with six other relatives, sharing a one-bedroom apartment.  

The Nissans said it has been a frustrating, at times, heartbreaking process. They said they were pleased to hear Canada promise to bring in 1,300 refugees last summer.

"I was very happy, this is good, they will help", said Yakdan. "But I hear nothing, nobody come, I do not know why."

The lack of movement on this front has thrown Canada's global reputation as a haven for those seeking refuge into question, says Mark at the Catholic Archdiocese.

Yakdan and Gamila Nissan have been trying for months to bring over Gamila's 60-year-old sister, Mira, but have found the process frustrating. (CBC)

"Definitely the international community is watching what we are doing, and I get inquiries from all over the world, especially when I travel. They ask me "Why don't we help more?'" he said.

Alexander insisted Canada is still a leading donor of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees — more than $350 million dollars. Still, he concedes the current system for processing refugees is not moving fast enough.

"We will be leaving no stone unturned to make sure that we move faster to meet the needs of those who need it, who need our help most," he said.

He also urged Canadians to offer to sponsor more Syrians. "We cannot do this alone as a government, we do these things as a country. We respond as communities," he said.

Meanwhile. Yakdan and Gamila Nissan wait and worry about her sister.

They came to Canada as refugees from Syria themselves 25 years ago. Now they feel that the country that welcomed them with open arms has forgotten about the Syrians who need help now. 

Where Syria's refugees are headed, according to pledges to the UN High Commission for Refugees in the summer of 2013. (CBC)


Laura Lynch


CBC Radio correspondent Laura Lynch has reported from many parts of the world, most recently Europe and the Middle East. She has also worked as the CBC's Washington correspondent and as a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. She is based in Vancouver.