Liberal government looks to expedite resettlement of Syrian refugees
OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Immigration Minister John McCallum says a portion of the 25,000 Syrian refugees the Liberals plan to bring here will likely be housed at first on military bases, and he predicts some asylum seekers might arrive under a temporary protection program rather than as permanent residents.
The Trudeau Liberal government on Monday announced it is assigning nine cabinet ministers, including Health Minister Jane Philpott and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, to expedite the Syrian refugee initiative. The Liberals promised during the federal election campaign to resettle 25,000 Syrians by Jan. 1 – an exceedingly ambitious goal, according to refugee advocates in this country, who say it cannot be done this fast.
Refugee experts say some Syrians might arrive with more temporary status for two reasons. In some cases, Ottawa may want to speed up intake of refugees by bringing them here before screening is complete. Others might be content to live here temporarily with a plan to return to their homeland if conditions significantly improve.
To expedite the arrival of 25,000, Mr. McCallum could use a ministerial permit to bring in some refugees whose security or health checks were not yet completed – and allow the rest of the scrutiny to take place in Canada. Officials could later revoke the permit if a problem arises during screening.
Mr. McCallum has hinted the need to do proper screening of would-be refugees for security risks and health problems could override the requirement to fulfill the political pledge deadline for 25,000 refugees by the New Year.
He told reporters Ottawa is considering ships, commercial aircraft or military planes to speed the refugees here. “Every option is on the table, whatever works, whatever is cost effective, whatever will get them here safely and quick,” he said.
He added that the government will draw refugees from Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey or some combination of these locations, where millions of Syrians have taken refuge from a long-running civil war and militants such as Islamic State.
In a later interview with The Globe and Mail, the minister said he expects military bases in Canada will house at least some of the newcomers – as they did in the 1990s when Ottawa brought 5,000 Kosovar refugees here.
“I think likely they will. We have no final decision. … We used [bases] in the Kosovo case, and when you have to lodge a large number of people quickly, military bases come into the picture,” Mr. McCallum said.
He added, however, that other housing options will also be used. “I am not saying military bases will be the only place, because we also have provincial governments finding places, we have mayors who are getting into the act, we have potential with the Red Cross, we have Syrian families.”
The minister said the Department of Citizenship and Immigration has already dispatched dozens of extra staff overseas to undertake the screening and selection. “This is being done as we speak. We have substantial numbers of immigration officials who have been relocated to the region. Those interviews and screenings are taking place right now.”
Mr. McCallum said a mix of different kinds of asylum seekers could arrive here.
“It’s going to be a combination of those who are admitted as permanent residents and possibly some on a more temporary basis,” he said in an interview.
The Liberals pledged that the 25,000 refugees would be sponsored by the government – which means taxpayers will cover the first-year costs of resettlement.
Justin Trudeau’s government is hoping to galvanize many Canadians to sponsor Syrians privately as well.
The federal government assigned a senior civil servant on Monday to the refugee effort, announcing that Malcolm Brown, who most recently was deputy minister for International Development, will become special adviser to the clerk of the Privy Council on the Syrian refugee initiative.
On Monday, Mr. McCallum refused to acknowledge the Jan. 1 target might be missed. “We’re working very hard so it doesn’t slip.”