Nearly half of Syrian refugees lack permanent homes, as Ottawa seeks hotels

The federal government is actively looking for hotels in Ontario and New Brunswick to temporarily lodge hundreds of Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4 but are still without permanent housing.

Immigration minister updates Commons committee on plans, progress in resettling refugees

Syrian refugees Jamil Haddad, left, and Tony Batekh, second left, George Louka and Edmon Artin, right, have fun in French class at a school in Montreal. They're part of Canada's resettlement plans that began in November and are expected to end this month. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The federal government is actively looking for hotels in Ontario and New Brunswick to temporarily lodge hundreds of Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4 but are still without permanent housing, according to calls for tenders posted on a government website.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum told a Commons committee that 23,098 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, putting the federal government on track to reach its goal of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the month.

McCallum appeared before the immigration committee on Tuesday to answer questions about the mandate given to him by the prime minister.

The immigration minister revealed that 52 per cent of all Syrian refugees have found permanent housing, meaning 48 per cent are still in temporary accommodations.

McCallum's answer came in response to a question by NDP MP Jenny Kwan who wanted to know why Syrian families were left to linger in hotels for weeks at a time.

"I've met many families who've waited more than two weeks and they're still waiting," said the NDP MP from Vancouver.

CBC Forum and resettling Syrian refugees

"I think that we should call a halt to the program until housing can be found for those already here. It will be difficult because of the size of the families. This should never have happened." — a comment from monica on the CBC Forum chat on resettling Syrian refugees in Canada. Read the full discussion here.

"The major challenge has been … to settle them well in Canada, McCallum said on Tuesday. "Nothing of this nature goes perfectly smoothly, there are always hiccups along the way, but I think it is going well in terms of helping the refugees find housing, learn English or French, get jobs."

The majority of Syrians who have arrived in Canada since November are government-sponsored refugees who will be settled into one of 36 cities and surrounding communities across the country.

McCallum said the government will expand the list of cities prepared to welcome Syrian refugees, with an announcement coming in the near future.

A new call for tenders went out Tuesday for some 500 hotel rooms in Brampton and Mississauga in Ontario to temporarily lodge approximately 1,500 refugees per night.

The federal government is also looking for hotels in Oromocto and Fredericton in New Brunswick with the capacity to accommodate approximately 450 refugees per night.

'Radical reduction' sought in wait times

While the Liberal Party's endeavour to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in less than four months has taken up most of the minister's time, McCallum said he will be moving forward with other commitments.

McCallum said his "top priority" is to reduce the processing times for Canadians who are sponsoring family members living abroad — and not just for those sponsoring spouses and common-law partners but also for those sponsoring parents and grandparents, children, and caregivers.

"It is unacceptable for Canada to ask spouses to wait typically 24 months before they are reunited, versus waiting periods like six to eight months for other countries with which we compare ourselves like the U.S., U.K., Australia."

McCallum said the government will make public its "ambitious targets" and announce an external advisory group of experts to help the government achieve a "radical reduction" in processing times.

The Liberals also vowed during the election campaign to reverse some of the changes made to the Citizenship Act by the previous Conservative government.

McCallum said he would be moving on that in the "coming days."

The minister also said he was considering reversing changes the Conservatives made in 2012 when they introduced a list of countries the government deemed "safe" for the purposes of processing refugee claims.

"We are actually considering whether to keep the Designated Country of Origin [list] at all... " he said, adding he has concerns the list may be "unconstitutional."

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel questioned the Liberal government's commitment to lift the visa requirement for Mexican citizens entering Canada.

The policy imposed by the Conservative government in 2009 to stem the flow of Mexicans seeking asylum here has became an irritant between the two countries.

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