John McCallum cautions against putting Syrian refugees 'ahead of the queue'

Immigration Minister John McCallum says the government must take care not to put the needs of Syrian refugees ahead of Canadians waiting in line for various social assistance programs, in an effort not to stoke anti-refugee sentiment.

'It's a delicate balance,' McCallum says as Liberals move to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees

Newly arrived Syrian refugees, from left to right, Mahmoud Majareesh, 10, and his sisters Haneen Majareesh, 1, and Reem Majareesh, 8, are part of the 10,000 Syrian refugees Canada has welcomed since Nov. 4. Mahmoud Majareesh is one of the children who were affected by a pepper spray attack in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Immigration Minister John McCallum says the government must take care not to put the needs of Syrian refugees ahead of Canadians waiting in line for various social assistance programs, in an effort not to stoke anti-refugee sentiment.

"It's a delicate balance," said McCallum as he and Health Minister Jane Philpott held a news conference in Ottawa to mark the arrival of more than 10,000 Syrian refugees.

The Liberals originally committed to resettling 25,000 government-assisted refugees by Dec. 31 but lowered the target to 10,000 in November, announcing they would be a mix of government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees.

"We want to welcome all of these refugees with open hearts and with love the way Canadians have, but at the same time we are mindful that we don't want to offend Canadians who have themselves been waiting for a long time for social housing and things of that nature," McCallum said in Ottawa on Wednesday.

While Canadians have expressed a lot of goodwill towards Syrian refugees, some anti-refugee sentiment has been on display in various cities across the country.

"I think what happened in Vancouver was an isolated case," McCallum said of a pepper spray attack against a group of Syrian refugees who had just arrived in Canada.

In November, a Peterborough mosque was set ablaze. Police said they were investigating as a hate crime. 

Politicians at different levels of government have been quick to denounce the attacks.

McCallum said while such incidents are not representative of the way Canadians feel as a whole, the government must avoid fuelling anti-refugee sentiment and one way of doing that is to ensure Syrian refugees are not put "ahead of the queue."

McCallum mindful of negative refugee sentiments

7 years ago
Duration 1:54
Immigration Minister John McCallum says he is ready for the next phase of integrating Syrian refugees into Canada, but that we must be mindful not to put them ahead of Canadians awaiting things like social housing.

Permanent housing for refugees 'a challenge'

McCallum's comments comes as the government works with settlement agencies, provincial and municipal governments to help thousands of Syrian refugees move from temporary accommodations to more permanent housing.

Government-assisted refugees can expect to stay in hotels or other interim lodging for a few days from when they first arrive in Canada until the day they travel to the city they will call home. But as more refugees arrive and the demand for permanent housing increases, it's likely some may stay in temporary accommodations for up to two weeks.

"The speed with which that will happen depends on how fast the conditions can be made ready for them on a more permanent basis," said McCallum adding that "so far it is going well."

"But the numbers are due to increase quite dramatically in coming weeks and this will certainly be a challenge."

McCallum, who visited refugee camps in Lebanon last month, said that having refugees stay in a hotel or a military base for a couple of weeks was better than some of the "lamentable" living conditions they experienced prior to their arrival in Canada.

McCallum said the military bases which the government hopes to use as "a last resort" have been made "welcoming" for the refugees that will need to use them.

The military started to make plans to winterize bases in Ontario and Quebec in November.

The minister lauded Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis as "an international example."

He said a German minister paid the mayor of Markham a visit to discuss best practices with respect to the resettlement of refugees.


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