Swift action for refugees urged as Trudeau’s promised deadline looms
Advocates say it is not impossible, but may be extremely difficult for the new government to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by Jan. 1.
As the world grapples with the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, Justin Trudeau is faced with the daunting task of fulfilling a campaign promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by the end of the year.
The prime minister designate has just 10 weeks to make good on that pivotal pledge that saw support for the Liberals surge among Canadians yearning for a revival of their vaunted humanitarian past.
But while refugee advocates say it’s not impossible, it may be extremely difficult to fulfill that promise on such a short deadline. And it would require immediately ramping up Canada’s refugee resettlement programs and devising an emergency mass-evacuation plan for vulnerable Syrians.
“We need a multi-pronged approach with a massive investment in human resources, working with the armed forces to open military bases for temporary housing for refugees,” said Chris Friesen, president and founder of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance.
“We need to co-ordinate nationally and provincially. It’s loud and clear that Canadians embrace the idea of refugee sponsorships. Government-assisted resettlement is the fastest and most efficient way to bring in the refugees.”
Demands that Canada do more to help refugees soared in September after the lifeless body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi was found washed up on a beach in Turkey.
During a speech in Halifax Sept. 20, Trudeau said his government would consider airlifting refugees, in a crisis that has seen more than 4 million people flee war-torn Syria over the past five years.
In an emailed response to questions from the Star on Wednesday, the Liberals said they would honour their campaign pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrian asylum seekers, though they did not specify a timeline.
“Canadians around the country — from our premiers and mayors, to non-governmental organizations, to private citizens — took swift action earlier this fall to help alleviate the suffering of many Syrian refugees,” said the MP-elect for Markham-Thornhill, John McCallum, the Liberal immigration critic in the last parliament.
“Going forward, the Liberal government will be a reliable partner, at home and around the world, and we will waste no time in helping Syrian men, women and children who so desperately need it.”
After photos of the Syrian toddler washed up on the beach went viral, the outgoing Conservative government announced plans to speed up bringing in 10,000 refugees. It also recently doubled, to 31, the number of staff handling sponsorship applications and appointed a senior bureaucrat, Deborah Tunis, who has a strong background in developing and managing settlement and social programs, as special co-ordinator for the Syrian refugee crisis.
The Conservatives also eased the sponsorship process somewhat by lifting a requirement that refugees being privately sponsored in Canada have a certificate of refugee status issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Now, any Syrian outside his or her country is regarded as a refugee because of the war in Syria, and Canadian authorities can move to vet resettlement applications quickly, although the refugees would still have to undergo security and medical checks.
In 1999, Canada gave 5,000 refugees from Kosovo temporary visas and airlifted them to Canada within just three weeks. A subsequent review of that operation in 2002 resulted in the government drawing up a “contingency refugee response” based on the lessons learned from the Kosovo crisis. That plan includes the collaboration of 36 refugee reception centres across Canada, the Ministry of Defence, immigration officials at visa posts, Canadian refugee sponsorship agreement holders, provincial authorities responsible for immigrant integration and support and the UNHCR.
Among his campaign pledges, Trudeau promised to invest an additional $200 million in 2015 and 2016 for refugee processing, sponsorship and settlement services and an immediate $100 million contribution to the UNHCR to support critical relief efforts for refugees.
“What is important is the new government’s desire to be more engaged in refugee resettlement. I am optimistic that our Prime Minister-designate has the political will to move quickly,” said Brian Dyck, chair of the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association.
However, the immediate plan for Syrian refugees is only one of many items on the Liberal Party’s immigration and refugee campaign platforms, which, if fully implemented, will see a sea-change in policies toward newcomers.
Other key Trudeau promises include fully restoring health care services to refugees cut under the Harper government and providing full appeal rights to all failed refugee applicants.
“We are hoping the government will restore the Canada we all love, as a leader of humanitarian and (refugee) protection work,” said Montreal-based immigration lawyer Mitchell Goldberg, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.
One thing Trudeau can do immediately, said Goldberg, is withdraw the government’s challenge of an order by the Federal Court of Canada to restore health care services to refugees — before an appeal hearing scheduled in Toronto on Monday.
Janet Dench, of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said Trudeau should also halt the government’s appeal of another court ruling that found applying a “safe country” designation to certain refugees to be discriminatory, and to settle lawsuits against the Tories’ Citizenship Act, which discriminates against dual nationals and women wearing a niqab.
“We do not take anything for granted,” Dench said. “I have been around long enough and seen what’s said by a party in opposition not translated into action after election.”
Trudeau’s other key pledges on immigration
Doubling parent and grandparent sponsorship applications:
In 2011, the Conservatives had a backlog of 165,000 parents and grandparents in the queue for immigration and stopped accepting new applications until 2014 while introducing a new “super visa” to let parents and grandparents visit Canada only. It then imposed an annual cap of 5,000. The Liberals said it would double that.
Restoring maximum age for immigration dependants to 22:
In 2014, the Conservatives narrowed the definition of a dependant child to someone younger than 19, rather than 22, and remove an exception for older children who study full time. The new ruled made roughly 7,000 children a year ineligible to rejoin their parents in Canada, separating families. The government said younger immigrants could better integrate. The Liberals plan to raise the age to 22.
Granting permanent resident status to sponsored spouses upon arrival:
In order to crack down on marriage fraud, a problem it claimed to have plagued the system, the Conservatives introduced the new “conditional” permanent resident category. Sponsored foreign spouses must “cohabit” under one roof with the Canadian sponsor for two years to be issued permanent status. It applied to spouses or partners in a relationship of two years or less who have no children together at the time of the sponsorship application. The Liberals will get rid of this two-year waiting period.
Repealing the revocation of citizenship of dual citizens:
In June, Bill C-24 became law, allowing the federal government to strip the citizenship of dual citizens convicted of certain serious crimes in or outside of Canada. Even the native-born could face the revocation of their citizenship as seen in the Conservatives’ attempt to remove the citizenship of Saad Gaya, who was born in Canada to Pakistani immigrant parents. Critics accused Ottawa of creating a two-tier citizenship schedule. A constitutional challenge is currently before the court. The Liberals say they will repeal unfair elements of Bill C-24.
Eliminating $1,000 assessment fee for families seeking foreign caregivers:
In light of the public outrage over the perceived abuse of the temporary foreign worker program by employers to replace Canadian workers, the Conservatives overhauled the program in 2014 and raised the fee for employers to bring in a temporary foreign worker from $275 to $1,000. The Liberals said it will get rid of the fee for families seeking foreign caregivers to look after members with physical or mental disabilities.