McCallum sending more staff to Jordan and Lebanon to boost refugee intake

Canadian visa offices in Jordan and Lebanon will soon see a new influx of staff to speed up processing applications to sponsor Syrian refugees.

Scaling back immigration officers in Jordan and Lebanon led to dramatic slowdown of refugee intake

Canadian Minister of Immigration John McCallum, right, speaks with a Syrian family inside their tent, during his visit to a refugee camp in the southern town of Ghaziyeh, near the port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. (Bilal Hussein/Associated Press)

Additional staff are being sent back to Canadian visa offices in the Middle East for faster processing of Syrian refugees, part of a Liberal promise to bring 10,000 privately sponsored Syrians to Canada by early next year.

Sponsorship groups have given Immigration Minister John McCallum and other Liberal MPs an earful in recent weeks after efforts to resettle Syrians were scaled back following the end of the government's program to get 25,000 to Canada by the end of February.

Staffing cuts and limits on applications meant people who had raised money, rented apartments and amassed clothes, furniture and volunteers would likely not meet their refugees until well into next year.

McCallum responded to some of those concerns last week, saying the 10,000 people whose applications were in by March 31 would be in Canada by the end of this year or early in 2017.

That prompted groups to scramble to submit as many files as possible before the deadline.

The commitment to extra staff proves the government is serious about meeting the commitment, said McCallum, adding that he will reveal more details next week about how the government plans to accelerate the process.

"Given that we're at capacity, there's a limit to how much we can do, even though I would really like it if we could accommodate fully all the generosity coming from Canadian families," he said in an interview.

Private sponsors urge quick action

Among those still frustrated is former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who met Thursday with McCallum and has become a spokesperson for several private sponsorship groups in that city.

"This kind of outpouring of goodwill doesn't happen all the time and it's something we really should take advantage of," Sewell said.

The original decision to place limits on the Syrian program was made in part because the Liberals have promised to bring down wait times for other refugees and immigrants; it currently takes about six years to sponsor a refugee from Africa.

Sewell said he agrees that's an important goal.

"But it doesn't mean you stop the Syrians," he said.

Sewell said his group wants any Syrians already matched with Canadian groups brought here by the end of the month.

In a separate email to CBC News Thursday, Sewell said McCallum seemed to agree with the idea of prioritizing refugee families that have already been matched with private sponsor groups in Canada.

McCallum said he didn't agree to a specific timeline, but it makes sense to first speed up the applications that nearly complete and address the people whose files have been approved but who've yet to travel to Canada.

According to the Immigration Department's website, there are 2,697 Syrians whose files have been approved but they have not yet travelled to Canada, though McCallum said there were 1,500 just waiting for flights.

At the high point of the Liberal program to resettle 25,000 people, there were more than 500 staff in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey interviewing, screening and signing off on hundreds of applicants a day. Government-organized flights were also arriving daily in Toronto and Montreal with hundreds of refugees on board.

In the last week, about 200 applications were approved and six Syrian refugees landed in Canada, according to the department's website.

with files from Susana Mas