The House

Tories set to revamp Syrian refugee response in wake of criticism, Jason Kenney says

Jason Kenney says the government will move to accelerate and streamline the processing of Syrian refugees.

Conservative government set to accelerate, streamline processing of Syrian refugees

Conservative candidate Jason Kenney. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives are set to unveil plans to expedite the resettlement of Syrian refugees to Canada, after more than a week of fierce criticism of their handling of the issue from political rivals. 

"Faster processing, an accelerated, streamlined system and more support to get more people here quickly," are at the heart of the government's newly envisioned refugee strategy, Defence Minister Jason Kenney said in an interview with Chris Hall of CBC Radio's The House.

"We've so far welcomed 25,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees — largely from Syria — and we have committed to an additional 20,000. Now, we're looking at ways for it to happen more quickly," Kenney said.

Kenney, the candidate for the riding of Calgary-Midnapore, said the plan would "probably" include putting more people on the ground to process refugee applications and security checks. But he noted it was not just a matter of more staff. 

"We clearly need to spend a lot more money to improve, to increase efficiency for personnel who are already in place over there," Kenney added. 

Priority to religious, ethnic minorities

Kenney also revealed that the government's refugee strategy will focus on fast-tracking religious and ethnic minorities from the region. 

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have suggested airlifting Syrian refugees from UN camps in the region to bring more people to Canada. (CBC / Canadian Press)

But the government is ruling out an airlift of refugees from United Nations camps, something their political rivals have bandied about as the fastest way to deal with the crisis.

"I think the idea of an airlift is completely imprudent," Kenney said. "The opposition parties who are talking about airlifting people out of camps clearly do not understand the nuance of the situation.

"I've been to the [refugee] camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and I can tell you that those camps do not reflect the diversity — and the complexity — of the refugee crisis in the Middle East." 

Kenney said that minority communities — the Yazidis, Druze, Syriac Catholics, Chaldean Christians and Ismaili Muslims — are the principal victims of the Islamic State and are reluctant to seek refuge in the UN-operated camps because of the hostile reaction they feel they'll face. 

Rather, these groups usually end up living in the slums of the region's big cities and do not avail themselves of the billions of dollars in humanitarian support pouring into the region, Kenney said.

"I think we — as a pluralistic society — are uniquely sensitive to vulnerable minority communities," Kenney said. "We don't want them to be the forgotten ones in this crisis."

But this focus on resettling Christians has drawn the ire of groups in Canada, who argue this policy is discriminatory and leaves the Sunni Muslim majority population in a bind. 

Financial support for private sponsors

Kenney also said that government is considering extending financial support for private sponsors of Syrian refugees. 

"There are many private sponsorship organizations in Canada who have long lists of [minority refugees] that they'd like to sponsor, but they don't have adequate financial backers at this point," Kenney said.

"Those are the kind of issues we're looking at in terms of accelerating resettlement."

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Privately sponsored refugees account for nearly 60 per cent of all the Syrians who have been resettled in Canada so far. The opposition parties have said that the Conservatives also need to boost the number of government-assisted refugees, something they have been loath to do. 

Kenney defends long processing times

Kenney also defended the government's processing record saying that technical limitations — like slow Internet bandwidth in the region — has made it difficult for immigration officials to act in a timely manner.

When presented with his government's own data, which shows that privately sponsored refugees wait nearly 51 months to have their application processed, Kenney said the data wasn't accurate.

"The main processing centre was in our embassy in Damascus. We had to close that down in 2011 and relocate those resources to Ankara, Beirut and Amman. That cost us a year to 18 months.

"The backlogs are a consequence of having to shut down our Damascus office." 

Kenney said that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's pledge to bring in 10,000 refugees by the end of the year was completely unrealistic, pointing that it would take more than a couple of months to process applications, complete security checks and screen for communicable diseases. 

The government's final plan for the Syrian refugee crisis is expected to be unveiled in the next few days, sources told CBC News.

Opposition Parties outline their plans

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who has said that an NDP government would pull out of the U.S.-led war against ISIS, reiterated Friday that an NDP government would sponsor 10,000 refugees by year's end and also appoint a Syrian refugee co-ordinator. 

"We've got to be getting the best possible people on the ground, we've said it for some time now, get the best person in there as a co-ordinator," Mulcair said during a campaign stop in Edmonton.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau repeated during a campaign stop in Burnaby, B.C., on Friday that a Liberal government would continue to work with its allies in the fight against ISIS.

"That means continuing to work with international partners and pushing back against ISIS, that means stepping up our refugee and humanitarian support."

Trudeau has said the Liberals would immediately accept 25,000 Syrian refugees.