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25,000 Syrian refugees in four months: How did Canada do it?

25,000 Syrian refugees in four months: How did Canada do it?
Published 9 Mar 2016 

Prior to Canada's federal election late last year, Canada had a modest target of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 and few of them had arrived by election day. This was 2,000 less than Australia's target of 12,000, despite Canada's larger population.

All this changed one morning last September when the world awoke to pictures of the corpse of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a Turkish beach. Little Alan had an aunt in Vancouver and the family was hoping to join her there. The picture of Alan struck most Canadians the way they had by pictures of the Hai Hong, in 1978, overloaded with Vietnamese refugees, lying off Malaysia where the ship had been refused landing. A spontaneous outcry across the country demanded that Canada do more for the Syrians, so little Alan might not have died in vain.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was deaf to the outcry and urged caution in processing so many people from an area rife with terrorists. However, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, campaigning on a platform of 'real change' was not. He declared that the refugees are not terrorists but rather the victims of terrorists. He committed, if elected, to bring to Canada 25,000 Syrian Government-sponsored refugees by the end of the year. This number was to be in addition to Syrian refugees arriving under Canada's Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program that allows groups of five or more to sponsor refugees.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals won a majority on 19 October and the Liberal Government took office on 4 November 2015. The goal of bringing 25,000 refugees to Canada in less than two months was extremely ambitious. But the Liberals also campaigned on the promise of making evidence-based decisions. The original Liberal plan involved bringing the Syrians to Canada as temporary residents, housing them on military bases and processing them for admissibility, health, security and criminality in Canada. The new Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, John McCallum quickly realised the difficulties involved in this approach, not the least of which would be trying to deport stateless people should they not qualify. So he changed gears. [fold]

The revised Liberal plan involved sending large processing teams to refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The Canadian Armed Forces would establish the processing centres and provide Medical Corps staff to conduct physical examinations of the refugees. Immigration officers, agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police worked hand in hand in the camps to process the refugees. They were referred to Canada by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the basis of vulnerability. Therefore, single mothers with children and families received priority. In all, over 600 military and public service personnel were deployed to the Middle East to carry out the operation and they were supported by thousands more in Canada.

The target date for reaching 25,000 was pushed back to February 29, 2016. The new plan was announced on 24 November, less than three weeks after the Liberals took office. There was little more than three months to meet the target. 

The first refugee flights to Canada were provided by the Royal Canadian Air Force and then, as the operations became almost routine, charters arranged by the International Organization for Migration carried most of the refugees. The very first flight of Government-sponsored refugees arrived in Toronto on 10 December and was met by Prime Minister Trudeau, Immigration Minister McCallum and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. The refugees were admitted to Canada and given winter clothing and the children were given bags of toys. Then they were hustled off to temporary accommodation prior to going to their final destinations.

Canada takes in about 7500 Government-sponsored refugees each year and in all major cities there is at least one refugee reception centre, operated by a non-governmental organisation but funded by the Government. These reception centres provide interim housing and offer classes to help orient the refugees to Canada. So, in large measure, the capacity to receive a large refugee movement is in place. The Government-sponsored refugees have been sent to about 40 different cities and the privately sponsored refugees, who will go to where their sponsors live in more than 260 communities across Canada. 

The 25,000th Syrian refugee arrived in Montreal on 27 February, meeting the target two days early. In all, 95 chartered flights arrived in a space of 80 days. However, the Government commitment was to bring in 25,000 Government-sponsored refugees, and only about 60% of the first group were Government-sponsored. The goal now is to bring in another 10,000 in the coming months and private sponsorships continue to flow in as well. As of 1 March, a total of 26,166 Syrian refugees have arrived, another 2382 applications have been finalised and are pending travel to Canada, and over 12,000 further applications are in process. About 3500 have gone to Toronto and about 3300 to Montreal with smaller numbers going to other cities.

While the Settlement Service Organisations across Canada are experienced in welcoming large numbers every year, the fast arrival of so many Syrian refugees is putting stress on the system. The most immediate challenge is housing. About two-thirds of the arrivals have been placed but the other third is still in refugee reception centres or hotels while the search for housing continues. The school system, especially in larger cities, is  straining to take in thousands of new students, most of whom do not speak English or French and it will take some time before all adults are placed in language classes as well.

How did Canada manage to meet such an ambitious goal? Ironically, it was the ambitious goal itself that galvanised the Public Service and the Armed Forces to develop innovative approaches. A smaller goal would have resulted in 'more of the same' and disappointing results. As Minister McCallum said: 'One definition of real change is you're doing something you've never done before.'

Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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