Private refugee sponsors find just a handful of Syrian cases approved
Stephen Harper rejects accusation that he's using the issue of public safety to avoid taking in more refugees
The latest government list of refugees pre-approved for private sponsorship has just nine Syrian cases on it, despite the growing crisis and increased demand by Canadians who say they want to help.
Known as the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) list, it has refugee cases from around the world that have been vetted by Canada and are ready to come within a month or two. Each case can represent a single person or a family.
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Church and community groups, known as sponsorship agreement holders, have access to the list as part of the BVOR program under which the federal government pays for half of the first year resettlement costs for the refugees.
"We were absolutely surprised and quite disheartened by the low number," said Susan Nye-Brothers, the refugee sponsorship co-ordinator for the Catholic diocese of Charlottetown.
Groups are so keen to sponsor Syrian refugees that those nine cases are already spoken for, even though one case is a family of more than 13.
Don Smith, who chairs the refugee working group of the Anglican diocese in Ottawa, said Syrian cases only started trickling onto the list in the spring. He said if the government doesn't step it up significantly, Canada's target of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next few years will not be met.
"Unless there's a radical change, I'm not optimistic about meeting the goals, and it's a terrible, terrible shame, because people are desperate over there," said Smith.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, who on Tuesday said Canada "cannot open the floodgates and airlift tens of thousands of refugees out of a terrorist war zone without proper process," was pressed again for details on what more Canada was prepared to do to ease the crisis unfolding overseas.
There is no contradiction, we will do both: we will help refugees and we will also protect Canadians...- Stephen Harper, Conservative Party leader
Harper reiterated that Canada would continue to balance the need to bring in more refugees with public safety.
"This government is committed to acting, committed to bringing more people in, committed to expediting the process and... we will make sure that we are also protecting Canadians," Harper said Wednesday morning during a campaign stop in Ontario's Niagara region.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who was in Toronto Wednesday morning, said Harper was using the issue of security as an excuse not to do more.
The Liberal leader invoked examples dating back more than a century, when Canadians helped people fleeing Europe, Africa and Asia.
"Quite frankly, security concerns didn't stop Wilfrid Laurier from bringing in record numbers of Ukrainians," Trudeau told supporters in Toronto.
"Louis St. Laurent didn't let security concerns stop him from welcoming — at the height of the Cold War — tens upon tens of thousands of Hungarian refugees."
Nor did the government of his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, "let security concerns prevent him from welcoming in thousands upon thousands of Ismaili refugees fleeing Idi Amin in Uganda" in the 1970s, he said.
Trudeau also noted that the short-lived government of former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark — who briefly drove Pierre Trudeau's government from power — helped alleviate the Vietnamese refugee crisis at the end of the 1970s.
But Harper rejected the Liberal leader's accusation, saying "there is no contradiction, we will do both: we will help refugees and we will also protect Canadians..."
Slow progress leads to desperation
Brian Dyck is the chair of the sponsorship agreement holders' association. He said the groups have been successful in sponsoring refugees from elsewhere, such as Iraq, but with the intense focus on Syria right now, that's where many groups and individuals who pair up with the groups want to help.
"Sponsorship groups, what they're hearing from the people they work with is that they're seeing these pictures about Syrians, and that's what they want to be involved in, so that's kind of the frustration that sponsorship groups are feeling right now," he said.
The slow progress has consequences for the refugees, who know nothing about special lists and despair of ever getting out.
"They just know the situation is dire, and many of them are thinking that they want to get out. And that means as the situation gets more dire, they become more desperate and they do desperate things, and they get on a boat that's dangerous or make a dangerous crossing into Europe."
Citizenship and Immigration did not respond to questions about why the number of Syrian cases on the BVOR list is so low.
But some groups say Canada needs more visa officers on the ground, in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, in order to vet and process potential refugees.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked all countries to look at how they could simplify their processes for identifying, approving and resettling refugees from Syria.
With files from CBC's Susana Mas and Janyce McGregor