Syrian refugee plan has officials 'working around the clock,' McCallum says
Liberals not ruling out airlifts or ships to transport refugees, says Canada's new immigration minister
The Liberal government intends to honour its promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada over the course of the next seven weeks, says newly-appointed Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum.
"It certainly remains our objective to get them here by the end of the year," said McCallum during an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics Friday.
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To do so, McCallum said his department is working "around the clock" with officials across various department including national defence, public safety and health.
Federal officials are also consulting with the provinces, and other groups, both domestically and at the international level.
While the details of the plan are still a work in progress, McCallum told host Rosemary Barton "all options are on the table."
"Military bases are a possibility... air transport... even naval transport has not been ruled out."
"It's a large amount of work to do in a very short time," he said.
The Department of National Defence confirmed on Friday it is working with other governmental partners.
"DND is currently looking at various options to support these objectives, including accommodations and logistical support," said spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier in an email to CBC News. "At this point, details remain to be determined."
Government efforts aside, Canadians can also sponsor refugees privately, but doing so will come with additional costs due to changes made by the Conservatives to the interim federal health program.
But McCallum said the Liberals would also act on their promise to fully restore health benefits to all refugees.
If resettling 25,000 refugees out of countries like Syria is the "toughest" challenge facing the Liberals, McCallum said "refugee health care is the easiest issue."
"We are going to totally restore refugee health care," he said.
Women and children low security risk
With the clock ticking, refugee experts are publicly weighing in on what McCallum and his colleagues need to do.
The first step, they say, is to determine an overseas selection process, and the nature and scope of security checks.
Then come the plans to transport refugees, probably by airlift, and how to house them once they arrive, says Peter Showler, the former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and an expert in refugee law at the University of Ottawa.
Determining who meets the definition of refugee, and whether those people meet security requirements are both key steps, says Showler.
But the process can be made much easier by selecting refugees from certain subsets in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — the countries Canada is expected to draw from.
In particular he says single women, women with families, and those who left after the first two years of the conflict, are highly unlikely to pose any terrorist threat to Canada. Similarly, he says Syrians with family members already in Canada carry a very low security risk.
"These are not people that suggest in any way security concerns, particularly if they come in as temporary residents," he said.
Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland echoed that view, saying the best way to ensure a low security risk is to bring in families with young children.
"The key is going to be in profiling who gets on the plane," he said. "And the standard should be individuals with at least two young children. That's because historically and across many Western democratic societies, the intelligence agencies have determined in the short, medium, and long term, that the profile of a young family with two or more young children represents the minimal potential for wrongdoing in terms of security."
The vast majority of Syrians now in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan will not have gone through a refugee determination process by the UN High Commission on Refugees, says Showler, simply because there aren't enough resources and it's too labour-intensive to process the millions who have fled.
He added anyone not in the low-risk security category, for example single men, probably would not get assessed for refugee status by UNHCR in the first place due to the shortage of resources.
Housing, education and language training
Showler argued the new government should not get hung up on determining whether individuals are at risk of persecution when they return to Syria.
"At this point it is silly and a waste of resources to try and assess the individual risk of persecution for particular individuals in Syria," he said. "Being at risk is not the part that needs to be considered, but... you can quite easily do that by way of group risk analysis."
He said performing this type of refugee determination overseas was what bogged down the Conservative plan, and led them to admit in too few refugees in recent years.
In fact, Showler argued the biggest challenge for the new government won't be in finding the right people to bring, or even the transportation to bring them here, but rather, ensuring adequate resources for resettlement. Finding permanent housing, education and language training currently takes about a year.
In recent weeks many refugee settlement groups have voiced some skepticism over the Liberals' ambitious timeline to bring in 25,000 asylum-seekers by Dec. 31. They have argued if a more streamlined process gets up and running, a few more months to bring people in would be acceptable.
With files from CBC's Susana Mas