Canada opens refugee processing centre in Jordan with 3 cabinet ministers on hand
Immigration Minister John McCallum, Health Minister Jane Philpott, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan attend
A trickle of Syrian refugees seeking to leave Jordan flowed into Canada's processing centre in Amman on Sunday, the first day of operations at what will eventually become the hub of much of the Syrian refugee resettlement program.
Ninety people were put through a multi-step process, some under the eye of three federal cabinet ministers who travelled to the Jordanian capital to see firsthand how their plan to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of February actually looks.
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"We have learned also there is positive things to report in terms of progress," said Immigration Minister John McCallum as he stood in the cavernous military exhibition facility now being leased to Canada by the Jordanian government.
"The processing centre had its first day of operation today, that will ramp up over time and get more intense. We also heard the good news that exit permits are not an issue in Jordan, so that's positive."
McCallum was joined by Health Minister Jane Philpott and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. They flew to Amman late Saturday, spending the day meeting international aid and UN officials and Jordanian leaders on Sunday and then flying straight back to Ottawa.
Canadian reporters were not permitted to report on their visit until they left the country, for what officials said were security reasons, but both the UN and Jordan's King Abudllah II posted word and photos of the trip on Twitter during the day.
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 travel by the end of February, the deadline the government has set.
McCallum said it's still an achievable goal.
"Let's be optimistic," he said.
Flights will depart from a civilian airport across the way from the centre carrying not just Syrians from Jordan, but also those from Lebanon.
But all the final details of how many and when are still being hammered out, he said.
"This being the first day there are a few kinks to work out and we also want to look at how to improve things," he said.
An immigration official who briefed the ministers repeatedly noted how plans continued to change and develop, suggesting that while the centre's goal is to process 500 people a day, that workload will be a challenge.
Medical screening capacity challenges
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 day one only four were in operation.
But one key problem right now is capacity for medical screenings.
Officials are currently only scheduling medical appointments elsewhere until they can beef up availability of services on site. One option is getting the International Organization for Migration or the Red Cross to run clinics, and the other is to have the military deploy a field hospital.
Privately-sponsored refugees — who make up the majority of the 10,000 people the government says it will resettle by year's end — will not have their cases flow through the registration centre but are likely to depart on flights from the same airport. Those planes could begin leaving as soon as next week.
Those whose cases are being handled by the hundreds of Canadian civil servants and soldiers now in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, are refugees selected by the United Nations refugee agency from a pool the international body is actively looking to resettle. An estimated 4 million people have been declared refugees from the Syrian war.
Ministers visit refugee camp
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.
She'll have a personal reminder to take back — both Philpott and 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," Philipott said.
Many of the refugees Canada will resettle will be women, some alone, some heads of families.
The ministers observed several families being processed through the system Sunday, telling them through translators that Canada is excited to welcome them but didn't have time to speak with them in depth.
One surprise confronting Canadians is that the families being referred by the UN are larger than expected. Rather than four or five people, it's often eight or nine.
McCallum said he viewed that as a positive.
"I think given Canada's aging population, not only are the children sweet-looking but they're very good for Canada more generally speaking," he said.
Since Nov. 4, 153 Syrian refugees have come and another 928 have been issued visas, according to the government.