Justin Trudeau's promise to take 25,000 Syrian refugees this year 'problematic'
Time frame 'too ambitious': better to slow down, resettle people well, federal officials hear
An announcement about Canada's new refugee plans could come as soon as next week — right after Justin Trudeau's cabinet is sworn in, according to sources who spoke to CBC News.
During the election campaign, Liberals said they'd accept 25,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq by the end of the year.
But is that even possible? And how would it work?
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Refugee settlement groups in Canada aren't sure it's wise. While they applaud the goal and the good intentions, they fear it's too much, too fast. And they're saying so, as the government consults with representatives of major refugee agencies on how to proceed, based on their current capabilities.
"Providing more time for this large resettlement movement will lead to better resettlement outcomes," said Chris Friesen, the president of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance.
Friesen was part of a conference call Tuesday when federal officials were urged to stretch their future Liberal bosses' ambitions out over a slightly longer horizon.
"Reconsider the time frame, keep the number but let's do it over 2016 to the end of 2016," he told CBC News.
"Twenty-five thousand over two months is problematic."
Airlift first, but then what?
Most of the Syrian refugees are expected to leave from Lebanon. Canada's processing centre in Beirut is now processing 700 applications a week.
A combination of military transport planes and charter aircraft would be required to move this many refugees over tight timeframes. When those planes land, military bases may provide temporary accommodations until permanent homes are secured in new communities across Canada.
That may be the easy part.
"The military option will bring them in on the short haul, but more consideration is needed post-arrival to actually figure out how to successfully integrate 25,000 Syrians over an eight-week period," Friesen said.
"The challenges post-arrival are significant," he said, noting a shortage of affordable housing and a lack of resources for health-care services in some places.
"We've got waiting lists for language classes for six to 10 months in certain cities. We don't have trauma support programs in place to address the two-thirds of Syrians who are going to require mental health interventions."
Ontario keen to accelerate
In a separate conference call Tuesday, federal and provincial officials discussed how the plans set out by the previous Conservative government may evolve as the Liberals take power.
Ontario, for example, already committed to taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016.
During a photo op ahead of their meeting at Queen's Park Tuesday, neither Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne nor Trudeau himself would tip a hand to suggest exactly what's being considered.
But Wynne's immigration minister offered a hint.
"Because now we have a willing partner," Michael Chan said, "I really want to quicken the process as much as possible."
Plans already in place were poised to bring in 2,000 more Syrians before the end of 2015 — adding to the 1,300 who have already arrived — so what's up for discussion now is a very significant ramp-up.
"Don't forget: even the processing takes time. There are the security checks, medical and criminal checks," said Mario Calla, the executive director for COSTI Immigrant Services. Even having a few extra months to succeed would help.
With an acceleration that began in recent weeks — including the addition of more visa officers to process applications in the region — Canada is believed to be on track to meet its earlier target of 11,300 by the end of 2016.
Two possible scenarios
Public opinion polls suggest Canadians are on side with accelerating plans to bring significantly more refugees to Canada.
Toronto's Lifeline Syria has 250 groups waiting to privately sponsor refugees. Their first two Syrian families arrive this week.
"I feel that there's a will. I've had thousands of people talk to me. We've had thousands of emails. I really think Canadians feel that this is a humanitarian part of their culture and that they should get involved," said project manager Alexandra Kotyk.
But practically, it won't be easy.
Federal officials are working on two contingency scenarios: one that tries to meet the goal expressed during the election, and a second that takes concerns into account and unfolds more slowly.
"I think the time frame is probably way too ambitious. And I think it's better to do things well and to get things all organized in a proper way to ensure that things work well," said Naomi Alboim, a former deputy minister of immigration in Ontario.
With files from Susan Ormiston, Karina Roman