Federal spending spiked during final scramble to meet Syrian refugee deadline

CBC News has learned the Trudeau government ramped up spending dramatically in February as it scrambled to meet its end-of-the-month deadline to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees.

Documents reveal half of $34M for airfare, expenses spent in February

Scramble to meet Syrian refugee deadline cost taxpayers dearly

7 years ago
Duration 1:51
Half of $34M for airfare, expenses were spent in February, documents reveal

The Liberal government spent $30 million on commercial flights and another $4 million on other expenses as it scrambled to meet its end-of-February deadline to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada, CBC News has learned.

The cost of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees

7 years ago
Duration 0:29
The Trudeau government spent $30 million to fly Syrian refugees to Canada.

Half of that money was spent in February alone, as the government dramatically ramped up its effort to meet its revised deadline. Those costs to transport, house and process the refugees amounted to about $1,360 per refugee.

The bill to temporarily house refugees in hotels jumped to about $580,000 during the final 30 days. That's nearly 10 times the government's previous monthly average, according to documents CBC News obtained through the Access to Information Act.

Six weeks later, hundreds of refugees are still living hotel rooms in Toronto and Vancouver.

"It took time in January to ramp up," said Carl Nicholson, executive director of Ottawa's Catholic Centre for Immigrants. "By the time we got to February, flights were coming in a very regular sequence."

"How much value do you put on taking somebody out of harm's way? Sometimes these things can't wait." 

Air Transat airbus heading to Amman, Jordan to transport more than 300 Syrian refugees to Canada in January, 2016.

Tight turnaround increased hotel bills

Settlement workers in three major cities across Canada had asked the government to slow down the pace of arrivals as they struggled to find low-income housing, but ​the government had a promise to keep. 

Justin Trudeau campaigned during the federal election to bring in 25,000 government-sponsored refugees by New Year's Day. But government officials said later in 2015 it would take more time and the figure would include privately-sponsored refugees. It pushed back the deadline to Feb. 29. 

The timeframe has posed significant challenges- Chris Friesen, Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

"The time frame has posed significant challenges on the infrastructure across the country," said Chris Friesen, the director of settlement for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

"The disadvantages of not being able to do any pre-arrival planning has meant it's been quite messy on the ground," said Friesen. "We would have benefited from much more advanced planning time. As a result, in some cases, it has increased the costs." 

Chris Friesen on the cost of Syrian refugees

7 years ago
Duration 0:22
Close to 200 Syrian refugees are still living in a handful of hotels in Vancouver and could be there until the end of the month racking up a bill of $110 per night.

Close to 200 Syrian refugees are still living in a handful of B.C. hotels. Families have been there for the last two months in rooms that cost on average $110 per night, said Friesen. 

In Toronto, 150 refugees remain in hotel rooms that cost $70 a day. Resettlement workers in both cities say it will take another few weeks to find the permanent housing for the refugees' specific needs.

$1.7M in overtime 

A thick stack of accounting records show government workers incurred $1.7 million in overtime over five months to pull off the fast-paced plan. 

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada employees worked late into the night, on weekends and travelled during their days off. Some workers were sent abroad to help process refugees. Others travelled within Canada to help with the resettlement efforts.

The cost of planes, trains and automobiles along with accommodations for the department workers totaled $1.5 million between Nov. 1, 2015 to March 1, 2016.

"This was an extremely complex project, carried out in a short period of time, that involved multiple partners and a significant amount of coordination," wrote the department's spokesperson in a statement to CBC News.

"Employee overtime was needed to meet the requirements, while at the same time meeting the ongoing operations of the department."

A family of Syrian refugees hoping to be approved for passage to Canada is interviewed by authorities at a refugee processing centre in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Radical changes to refugee processing

Groups involved in resettling Syrian refugees across Canada are in Ottawa for a two-day debrief with the government starting April 18.

They are expected to talk about what went wrong and how to improve the process.

There were some hiccups in terms of how things went. But it was good to have a shake-up- Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees

"There were some hiccups in terms of how things went. But it was good to have a shake-up," said Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, about the government's tight deadline.

"I think it helped to make sure the way that refugees were processed changed radically. I think we'll maybe see the benefit of that in the months and years to come, because Canada unfortunately has gotten into the habit of doing extremely slow processing for refugees, which is really problematic." 
Government-sponsored Syrian refugees were living in Ottawa hotels as they waited for permanent housing. (CBC)

The immigration department declined CBC's request for an interview. 

A department spokesperson wrote in an email that documents obtained through the Access to Information Act represent a snapshot in time based on existing documentation. 

IRCC says it's working to provide update on the costs of the initiative in May. That's the same month resettlement workers in Vancouver and Toronto hope Syrian families will be out of hotels and living in permanent homes.


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military involving senior leaders. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/