OTTAWA – The federal government sought to delay the arrival of refugees last year because it was running out of money.
A memo was sent to all Canadian missions last November asking them to find people who could be held back from arriving in Canada until 2015 because there were too many in the pipeline and the budget for refugee resettlement was running dry.
But Syrian refugees were exempted from the plan, according to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act.
“We are running into the problem (an enviable one in some ways) of hitting up against the limit of the (resettlement assistance program) budget we can spend this year,” Emina Tudakovic, a senior official at immigration headquarters in Ottawa, wrote to all missions handling refugee cases.
“In general, we are looking at rescheduling travel for any (government-assisted refugees) that you possibly can for 2015 . . . with the exception of Syria cases,” she added.
The request went out as the government was coming under fire for its seemingly slow response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
In 2013, the Conservatives pledged to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014 in response to a global call from the United Nations for assistance handling what’s been deemed the world’s single largest refugee crisis for almost a quarter of a century.
Most were to be settled by the private sector, with the government taking on the financial and logistical responsibilities of settling 200 people.
But by the time the memo was sent in November 2014, less than 500 Syrians in total had actually arrived in Canada and the Conservatives were facing daily calls both from the opposition and the public to speed up the files and also make room for more.
The refugee resettlement assistance program has a $54.9-million budget, according to the Citizenship and Immigration department.
“When it became clear that more funds would be needed to assist the very generous movement of (government assisted refugees) last year, CIC reallocated resources from within existing reference levels to meet the needs of eligible arrivals,” Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for the Citizenship and Immigration department, said in e-mail.
The department did not answer questions about whether the Syrian commitment was the reason the budget was maxing out, nor how many people from elsewhere were held back, saying that those decisions were made by local missions and statistics were not available.
“Logistics can sometimes require small numbers of people to wait, but these decisions are made locally and always with the best interests of the people involved taken into consideration,” Caron said.
She added: “we can say with full confidence that no one to whom we are providing refuge from ISIL had to wait.”
Recently released statistics show 7,574 refugees were admitted last year, a record-high for the Conservatives. The previous two years saw historic lows in part because of the closure of the Canadian embassy in Damascus which had been handling the lion’s share of refugee resettlement for the Middle East.
Still, it took until March 2015 for the government to meet its 2013 commitment to the 1,300 refugees, which it did by sponsoring more through government channels than it had intended.
In January of this year, they committed to resettling a further 10,000 over the next three years but did not say how that would be shared between the private and public sector.
The department is refusing to say how many have since arrived in Canada and will only make the statistics available for a fee.
As of this month, the number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria to neighbouring countries has passed four million, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.