Canada has welcomed nearly 700 Syrian refugees since the world first saw those heartbreaking images of little Alan Kurdi more than two months ago—a major spike in arrivals during the waning days of the Harper government, and a stark reminder of the monumental task facing the Liberals as they scramble to fulfill one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s key campaign promises: resettling 25,000 additional Syrians by the end of 2015.
According to the latest figures provided to Maclean’s by the federal immigration department, the vast majority of those newly landed refugees (579) were privately sponsored—while only 86, about 11 per week, arrived under the “government-assisted” stream, in which the feds pay for one year of financial support. (Another 18 came here via the so-called “blended” program that sees Ottawa split the initial 12 months of resettlement costs with private supporters.)
All told, 683 sponsored Syrian refugees were flown to Canada in the eight weeks between Sept. 9 and Nov. 3, Stephen Harper’s final day as prime minister.
The numbers emerged as John McCallum, the new minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, announced the creation of a Liberal cabinet subcommittee to fulfill his government’s much more aggressive target: 25,000 Syrian refugees over the same eight-week time frame it took the previous government to bring in 700. To reach its ambitious goal, the Liberals will need to transport 3,125 Syrians to Canada every week between now and Jan. 1.
Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill Monday afternoon, McCallum could offer very little in the way of specific details, including how those thousands of refugees will get here, where they will live, or the estimated cost of such a bold plan. “We are working on all these fronts at the same time, and within a short time—in a matter of days, or a small number of weeks—we will have a detailed announcement of plans with numbers to provide to Canadians,” he said. “Every option is on the table: whatever works, whatever is cost-effective, whatever will get them here safely and quickly.”
McCallum said the Trudeau government will likely focus on resettling Syrians now living in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, but it’s possible that as the plan evolves, one of those three emerges as the key source country. Military airlifts are a possibility, he said, as are naval vessels. Air Canada executives have also reached out to the government, offering to transport some refugees on its commercial jets.
“It is in the Canadian tradition to respond generously to such international crises,” the minister said. “And I believe, from what I’ve heard so far in the few days I have been in this job, that there are many Canadians across the land who want to reach out to help us in this endeavour, from provincial governments to mayors of cities to non-governmental organizations to individual Canadians.”
Like so many across the globe, Canadians were horrified by the photographs of Alan Kurdi’s three-year-old corpse, lying face down on a Turkish beach after his family’s failed attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos on Sept. 2. How should Canadians now react, knowing that nearly 700 other Syrian refugees made it here safely in the two months since? As always, the answer requires a rudimentary grasp of the country’s refugee system, and some dedicated sifting through the many, many stats that have been tossed around.
With violence escalating in Syria, the Harper Conservatives first promised in July 2013 to accept 1,300 refugees from the war-torn country, a pledge that was later boosted by 10,000, for a grand total of 11,300. By Sept. 8, 2015—26 months after the initial promise—the Tories had overseen the arrival of 2,406 Syrian refugees, or an average of 93 per month. Most (1,754) were privately sponsored, which means the sponsor (a group of relatives, for example, or a church group) agrees to cover basic living costs so taxpayers don’t.
When Kurdi’s lifeless body washed ashore in the middle of the election campaign—and reports emerged that his Canadian aunt had tried to bring the boy’s extended family to British Columbia—the Harper government had no real choice but to revise its plan. Amid growing outrage over the Tories’ seemingly rigid refugee policies, then-immigration minister Chris Alexander announced a $25-million strategy to fast-track its original promise by 15 months, ensuring the rest of those 11,300 Syrian refugees arrived by September 2016, not December 2017 as originally conceived.
Key to the Tory plan was a common-sense new rule: people fleeing Syria’s civil war would no longer need to be certified by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Canadian officials can now assume that any Syrian outside the country is a Convention refugee, allowing front-line visa officers to focus instead on questions of medical admissibility and security screening.
It appears, at least, that the Conservative plan to speed up processing was beginning to yield results. Those 683 newly landed refugees represent more than 340 per month—a huge increase from the 93 per month who arrived during the previous two-plus years.
Trudeau remains determined to annihilate that pace, insisting he will keep his word and resettle 25,000 Syrians by the end of the year—again, more than 3,100 per week over the next two months. And unlike the ousted Conservatives, whose refugee-acceptance pledges were always a mix of privately sponsored and government-assisted, the Liberal platform specifically said that all 25,000 will arrive “through immediate, direct sponsorship by the government of Canada.”
In other words, Trudeau’s ambitious target does not include the groundswell of private sponsors who have stepped forward to help in the aftermath of Alan Kurdi. Instead, each one will be a government-assisted refugee, a key distinction that will make an already daunting task even more challenging—and costly.
Related: Q&A: John McCallum
Yet again, consider the stats. In 2014, the latest numbers available, Ottawa welcomed 7,573 government-assisted refugees (GARs) from regions all over the world. The Liberal government now wants to bring in more than triple that amount—in two months. Over the previous eight weeks, remember, Ottawa accepted just 86 GARs, or 0.003 per cent of the figure Trudeau now hopes to reach.
Providing funding for those 7,573 GARs, including monthly income support that mirrors provincial welfare rates, cost Ottawa at least $54.9 million last year, on top of the $2.7 million budgeted for processing those refugee applications. That dollar figure could reach $200 million under the Liberal plan.
In the meantime, resettlement centres across the country that help integrate government-assisted refugees are preparing for the inevitable wave. Chris Friesen, chair of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance, is planning a Tuesday press conference to essentially beg for volunteers. “The headline of our press release will be: ‘Help Wanted,’ ” he says. “We need help from everybody: the housing sector, employers, dentists, counsellors. We’re basically asking for all hands on deck here.”