TORONTO — Two more weeks — that’s how long the Liberals say it will take to get 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, a goal the government was hoping to have met by midnight Thursday.
But Canadians were urged not to dwell on the missed target and instead focus on what the government had managed to achieve — bringing just over 6,000 Syrian refugees to Canada in a matter of weeks with a total 25,000 expected by early next year, a program the Liberals say makes Canada a world leader.
“I think when history is written, the story will be about how we welcomed 25,000 refugees in a short period of time and not the fact that there was a two week delay in meeting our intermediate target,” Immigration Minister John McCallum said after meeting staff at the Toronto airport terminal where refugees have been arriving on government-organized flights.
“My conclusion is not to apologize for anything, but to congratulate all of the public servants for a fantastic job and to thank all of the Canadians who have participated in this venture.”
Some goals have been met — 25,000 Syrian refugees have been identified as candidates for resettlement and 10,700 refugee applications have been fully processed.
“I would say we have largely met our promises,” McCallum said when asked how Canadians could be expected to trust a new government that revised a key promise made during this year’s election campaign.
“I think it is up to Canadians to decide whether this two week delay is a matter of utmost importance, or whether we should instead focus on welcoming these wonderful new Canadians.”
The Liberals promised last March to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada and incorporated the pledge into their election platform, saying all it would take is “political will” to resettle them by the end of the year.
But the reality of rolling out that promise has proven it takes more than that and the Liberals have amended their plan several times.
Initially, the plan was expected to involve only refugees assisted by the government. But in November the Liberals said the 10,000 refugees they would resettle by Dec. 31 would be mostly privately-sponsored, and a further 15,000 government-assisted refugees would come by the end of February.
At least another 10,000 government-assisted refugees will come to Canada by the end of the 2016, the Liberals said.
“We want to do this fast, and we are doing this faster than any time in Canadian history. But more important than that, we also wanted to do it well,” said McCallum. “The whole world has noticed what we are doing.”
McCallum said the reason 10,000 refugees were not in Canada by Thursday was largely due to the time it initially took to get the government’s massive resettlement program running smoothly, and the “human factor” of Syrians not willing to leave their current homes as fast the Canadian government is asking them.
“Even if you’re desperate, you will still sometimes want a few days to say goodbye to your friends, to clean up your business and to come to a new country,” McCallum said. “We cannot begrudge them of those few days. We certainly cannot and did not and never would say you have to come before the end of the year.”
Previously, difficulties posed by winter weather, the challenge in getting the governments of Lebanon and Turkey to assist with exit visas and a slow start to medical screenings were also cited as reasons the program took longer to get running.
But Health Minister Jane Philpott said without the “incredibly audacious goals,” nothing would have happened.
“This is something that we will look back at and not be talking about the timelines a decade from now but be talking about the amazing new Syrian Canadians who have become part of our community,” she said.
At least one settlement agency said the delay announced by the government on Thursday was not a significant concern.
“Whether we have 10,000 Syrian refugees here by midnight today is far less important than the fact that plans, resources and more important political will are in place,” said Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.
The Canadian Council for Refugees added that the rate at which the government was bringing in Syrian refugees was a significant achievement.
“We hope the quick processing of these Syrian refugees will be the first step towards radically reducing processing times for other refugees,” said executive director Janet Dench.
The NDP, however, were more critical of the Liberals’ shifting targets and said McCallum had “abandoned” the party’s election pledge as it was promised.
“Not only did this Minister irrefutably fail to live up to the promise Liberals made to Canadians in the last election but he even failed to meet his own lowered expectations,” said Jenny Kwan, the NDP’s immigration and refugees critic.