Caution and Compassion: The Canadian Government and the Syrian Refugee Plan

Caution and Compassion

The Liberal Refugee Plan for Syrian Refugees (updated 27 November 2015)


Howard Adelman

John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRC), just announced the Liberal plan to fulfil the promise to bring 25,000 government-sponsored refugees to Canada by the end of the year. Note the following differences between the campaign promise and the announced plan:

  1. December 31st is a hard target, but not an immoveable date.
  2. All 25,000 will be selected by the end of December and are in addition to the just over 3,000 Syrian refugees who have already arrived in Canada by 3 November 2015.
  3. Those include both government-sponsored refugees (GARs) and privately-sponsored refugees (PSRs) [There are also BVORs, blended visa office-referred program, that is, refugees where refugees identified for resettlement by UNHCR are matched with private sponsors, but six months of financial support comes from the government; since there are only an estimated 200-300 of these, to make things simpler, they have just been included in the GAR program.]
  4. The numbers targeted for the end of the year to be actually brought to Canada has been lowered to 10,000.
  5. The initial thousands of refugees will not only include government-sponsored refugees, but privately-sponsored refugees as well, drawn from the ten-thousand refugees already in the pipeline for private sponsorship.
  6. Of the 10,000, an estimated 8,000 will be PSRs to take advantage of the fact that these refugees have either been cleared for coming to Canada or are in the last stages of clearance.
  7. The balance of the promised 25,000 will be fulfilled in January and February of 2016 and the 15,000 will be composed of 2,000 PSRs and 13,000 GARs.
  8. The balance of 10,000 GARs would be brought to Canada at the latest by the end of 2016.
  9. Since, in the interval, there may be more private sponsorships, PSRs will take priority over GARs in coming to Canada, so that the number of GARs scheduled to be taken in  during January and February may be further diminished and spread out to facilitate the prompt intake of PSRs
  10. The 25,000 GARs by the end of 2016 will be a minimum figure, and, depending on how the program works, there may be many more brought to Canada.

To summarize:    Nov.-Dec.     Jan.-Feb      Feb.—Dec. 2016     Totals

GARS                     2,000               13,000         10,000 minimum    25,000 min.

PSRS                     8,000                 2,000            additional ???        10,000 min.

10,000               15,000                                              35,000

In effect, these changes make the deadline flexible as most have been urging, while, at the same time, sending out a signal of determination, momentum and a goal of re-establishing Canada’s reputation for helping refugees. It is clear that the new government of Canada wants to stress the urgency of bringing in the refugees and Canada’s fundamental commitment to refugees. Inserting the privately-sponsored refugees within the deadline, rather than afterwards, avoids even further private sponsorship frustration; they have been waiting months for the refugees they offered to sponsor. At the same time, the plan eases the burden on the government to find accommodation for so many refugees in such a short time. It is a program that combines caution with compassion.


The refugees will be selected from both camps and self-settled refugees in Jordan and from among lists of refugees already registered with UNHCR in Lebanon where there are no Syrian refugee camps. The government will also be settling refugees from Turkey, possibly because of pressures from Turkey if the news reports are at all accurate. I originally thought that there was, effectively, a division of responsibilities, with Europe taking many of the refugees in Turkey, the country with the largest number of Syrian refugees, where its government, rather than UNHCR, undertakes the registration. Canada would concentrate on Jordan and Lebanon, where the refugee populations make up a very high proportion of those living there. But apparently this may not be the case. Nor will it be the case that Turkey is so preoccupied with its shattered foreign relations with Russia, that it has no time to issue exit permits. In that regard, the disfunctionality of the government of Lebanon will remain an important obstacle.

Hopefully, the Canadian initiative will set off a precedent to inspire other countries to follow. Further, by taking refugees already registered with UNHCR, the refugees will have had one level of security clearance, though admittedly, a very inadequate one, before being given full and complete both health as well as security checks by Canadian officials before being transported to Canada.

Canada will not be relying on those UNHCR checks. It has sent a very large contingent of visa, CSIS and CBSA officers who are already in-situ in the countries targetted and already at work processing applications and interviewing refugees – in excess of 150 persons. The contingent of officers sent over is much larger than any of the organizations in the refugee support community had recommended or expected. It is expected to grow to as many as 500 people, especially because of the necessity of having full teams of health professionals in place to ensure there is no transmission of infectious diseases to Canada, especially TB. This means that processing times, which had been 11 months in Lebanon and 17 months in Jordan, will be drastically cut down. (The delay was 44 months for Syrian refugees in Turkey.) If 100 of those officers process 10-12 per day, and 100 of the officers are assigned to refugee interviewing, and if others are there for the security and health clearances and the backup of clerical work, then the 25,000 target for processing by the end of the year is doable.

The refugees will be subject to biometric fingerprinting and eye scans with the information sent to a shared intelligence system to double check that the applicants are not on an international cautionary or wanted list. Family history will also be taken in detail. The interviewers have now been trained to ask specific questions. Further, the officers have been given specific instructions that if they have the slightest hesitation about taking a refugee for security reasons, that person should remain on the list for future consideration, but not accepted at this time. If the refugees interviewed are taken from the UNHCR and have been in the camps for some years, they are the least likely to be risky.

But the real filter is another method. By focusing on families with children or single mothers with children, on women and others at risk, the security risk is virtually eliminated. LGBT individuals can be privately sponsored. The real problem, the one that has been there all along, is the future of children brought over at a young age or those born in Canada who become alienated from parental authority and susceptible to extremist entreaties when they are teenagers or in their early twenties. But that is a problem about integration, not selection. It is hard to imagine a more foolproof system of refugee selection to minimize the possibility that terrorists might enter Canada in the guise of refugees, a very low risk in any case.

There are two problems about the so-called security threat. First, there is the real threat, however very low, that terrorists would use this gateway to enter Canada. That risk has always been very tiny and has been grossly exaggerated by fear mongers. The perception of risk is being satisfied by the numbers of officers sent over, the methods being used for screening and the selection criteria.  It is also being satisfied by completing all processing overseas so that Canada does not end up with people selected whom Canada rejects because of security problems revealed after they arrive. In such a situation, Canada would not be able to send them back to a war zone and we would be stuck with hosting them even though they had not satisfactorily satisfied the security checks.

That makes the central problem one of perception of a security threat, a perception that might affect the way the overall program is received, the reception the refugees experience after arrival and the treatment Canadian extremists might mete out randomly against Muslims. So the different barriers – first UNHCR and/or host country, then Canadian security checks, but, most importantly, the restrictions on those who will really be eligible – only those who almost certainly could not be terrorists. As Justin Trudeau said in his interview afterwards with CBC, a major concern of the government was the issue of perception even more than one of an anticipated real threat. The fear, all along, was problematic, but it is important that the refugees be welcomed and received with a smile rather than suspicious glances.

hat about gays? More generally, what about members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) community? They are extremely vulnerable. What about a number of Yazidis, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Christians who have been afraid to register and be identified lest that be targeted for persecution by other refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. Canadian officers in the rush to get 25,000 to Canada by the end of February will not be hunting down Christian refugees in hiding for acceptance to Canada given the restriction of accepting only refugees already registered with UNHCR from Lebanon and Jordan. If privately-sponsored refugees include these people or members of the LGBT community, they will be subjected to the same security checks as anyone, but they will not, I repeat, not be excluded from acceptance into Canada. Since Canada will be targeting families with children, single parent families, women at risk, are single males of military age to be excluded as GARSs? Are single males who are gay to be excluded

The answer is a nuanced one and is not always well articulated. No category of persons will be excluded, whether based on religion, gender or sexual orientation. On the other hand, some groups of refugees will be given priority. That group will not in the first instance when speed of selection is critical include single males of military age unless they are part of a larger family unit or are vulnerable, such as gays.

The reality is that we are taking such a small percentage of the total refugee population and a zero risk policy of accepting those refugees who are most unlikely to be terrorists. That should silence those nay-sayers.  But no matter how many measures are put in place, the guarantees of the security of Canadians will not silence the Islamophobes who will find other reasons to doubt the effectiveness of the process.

One part of the plan not articulated adequately as part of the announcement, must be an integral part of the operation bringing these refugees to Canada. Syrian refugees heading to Canada will themselves be at risk from extremists. Certainly, the families they left behind may be subject to attacks if the identities of some of the refugees coming to Canada become well known. What I wait to find out on the security question is what type of security is going to be in place to protect the identity of the refugees whose families back home are at risk, to protect refugees before they leave, and when they are on planes destined for Canada.

The selection and security issues are at the fore in bringing these tens of thousands of refugees to Canada. But there are many other issues. Transportation is one of them. Thank goodness the idea of using cruise ships in the height of winter on the stormy north Atlantic was discarded, though I later learned that the idea remained viable for a week to answer the question of accommodation in the Middle East before sending the refugees onto Canada. The refugees are to be flown to Canada initially, when there are only small groups, on regular flights, and then on chartered flights as the program gets geared up. Military flights will only be used as a backup. I assume the difficulty in finding enough aircraft to bring the refugees in the five weeks remaining, especially over the Christmas season when aircraft are in very short supply, was also one reason, and possibly a determining one, in shifting the completion date to the end of February. If it was, then ignoring this as a reason while stressing the great care on the security issue may be justified. I still think it will be difficult to meet the target of 10,000 arrivals by the end of the year unless we are willing to pay a fortune for chartering aircraft over the busy Christmas season.

The transportation issue has not been adequately articulated in the media. First, because of problems of security, refugees in Lebanon will be flown to Amman. All flights to Canada with Syrian refugees from Lebanon and Jordan will depart from Amman airport. Further, refugees, when they are flown to Canada, will be sent directly on to their destinations if the flights are of short distance. They may be kept overnight if the connecting flights to their final destinations are Calgary or Vancouver. The most important part of the transportation policy is the change in the past pattern of refugees having to repay their transportation costs after one year in Canada when they most need all their resources to settle and integrate well; the transportation loans have been eliminated. Transportation to Canada will be paid by the government of Canada. Syrian refugees will not have to assume the debt as a transportation loan. Whether that policy is extended to other groups of refugees, we will have to wait and see.

One item I stressed in my meeting on Sunday morning with John McCallum, our Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, was the priority of having a communications strategy. As it turns out, the government has been far ahead on this problem. There have been conversations with mayors and premiers across the country. The issue was on the agenda of the Prime Minister’s meeting with the premiers and representatives from the territories. Today, there were briefing sessions with the media. There was a conference call for an hour across Canada with a dozen bureaucrats in Ottawa responsible for different aspects of the file and representatives from agencies across the country involved in sponsorship and/or settlement. The representatives of the NGOs were free to ask as many questions as they wanted. This weekend, a consultation meeting will be held in Ottawa that will include all stakeholders to help resolve a number of outstanding problems related to settlement and integration.

One of the problems that emerges from this extensive networking in developing policy as a consultative process, and one that is as transparent as possible, is that tentative proposals that are developed and proposed during this development of policy in motion get released and taken as government policy when the idea is discarded several days later – the use of cruise ships, the rumour that the refugees will be initially housed in army camps when only 1,500 places are being provided on bases as a reserve with an additional plan to make 4,500 extra spaces available if needed, the rumour that single male refugees would be excluded altogether when there are no exclusions, the belief that security and health processing would be divided between overseas pre-clearance and in-country checks. There is another problem when a plan is not fully developed and delivered from on high. The biggest one is that settlement agencies are desperately in need of funds to handle the enormous increase in inquiries, to hire and train staff to be ready for receiving the refugees. They will have to find interim funding until the government is able to allocate funds.

Once the overall plan was announced, the resettlement and integration part of plan can be discussed in detail with the settlement agencies. That part of the plan has not been refined. Until the plan is further developed and the specific needs known, a proposal cannot be put to the Treasury Board for approval of funds. Further, a process will have to be developed for the application for those funds and the distribution and monitoring of the monies. Luckily, and in contrast to the Indochinese Refugee movement, there are now 36 reception and settlement centres with a great deal of experience across Canada and processes already in place for distributing other funds.

It is also not clear if the provinces and municipalities will be expected to contribute monies over and above the $678 million budgeted by the federal government to be spent over six years. Further, since the real needs of the settlement agencies have not yet been submitted, since the estimates have been based on past practices, the figure has to be considered a best estimate at this time. But it is very different than the $1.2 billion budget rumoured just two days previously.

There are many other problems to be worked out. Victoria, B.C. does not have a RAP centre for receiving refugees, but the mayor has clearly indicated a desire to receive refugees for southern Vancouver Island and be part of the program. The government is committed to including all regions of the country which want to be part of the program and that have sufficient capacity in an existing settlement facility or wish to and have the capacity to develop such a facility. A number of NGOs have pressed the government to increase the shelter allowance given current accommodation costs across Canada. NGOs are eager to get the master distribution list, but until the consultation and Treasury Department approvals, that distribution list cannot be released as a final document.

The government has also learned from past experience. Sponsored families will not be sent to places in Canada where they will isolated from their fellow nationals. Each locality will be required to welcome a minimal critical mass of refugees. At the same time, given the history of antagonisms in Syria, it will be important that the government be careful and that families from antagonistic groups are not sent to a small centre.

The best result is that the refugee support community virtually unanimously greeted the announcement as a Good News Day. It is heart warming to see the government once again stepping up to bat to be a partner with civil society. I suspect the whole Syrian refugee movement is as important in defining Canada once again in terms that once made Canada a leading light in the international community, especially when the refugee initiative is complemented by other initiatives, such as the environmental proposals. The refugee program has been defined and broadcast as a National Project.

Finally, a great deal of credit has to given to the Canadian civil service and politicians across the country who have risen to the challenge of providing leadership. The civil servants have characterized the intensive and long hours of work that they have put in over the last few weeks, as exciting, exhilarating, but also exhausting. If the program works as well as the Indochinese refugee program, their effort will become high points in many of their lives.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s