OTTAWA — Stephen Harper says the Conservatives would bring 10,000 more Middle East refugees to Canada over the next four years if re-elected — but it may take a lot longer to actually hold them accountable for the promise.
Last January, the government promised 10,000 Syrian refugees a home in Canada over the next three years, but had been refusing for weeks to release information on how many have since arrived.
After Harper's announcement Monday, the Citizenship and Immigration Department suddenly released statistics they previously said would only be available for a $100 fee later this fall.
They now say that as of late July, 1,002 people have resettled in Canada as part of the January commitment.
The Conservatives have taken political heat for a seemingly slow and political approach to refugee resettlement, beginning with their failure to meet a 2013 commitment to Syrian refugees in the manner or timeline they'd originally laid out.
That year, in response to an urgent call for assistance from the United Nations, they agreed to resettle 1,300 people by the end of 2014, with the private sector responsible for 1,100 people and the government itself taking on the cost and logistics of bringing in the remaining 200.
But under questioning from both journalists and opposition MPs, the government revealed it would not meet that goal, releasing data that showed by the end of 2014, only 700 people had arrived.
It took until March 2015 for the 1,300 goal to be met — and that only happened because the government sponsored more people itself than it had previously intended.
Since then, the government has released no information about the January commitment. When asked last month how many more refugees had arrived, a spokesperson for the department said the data was not publicly available and could only be accessed for a $100 fee — part of a regulation allowing the department to recoup the cost of looking up unpublished information.
Then, in making the announcement Monday, Harper said 2,500 Syrians had now been settled in Canada.
"We just don't aim for numbers," Harper said. "We make sure that in every case that the security of Canadians is protected when we are bringing people from these combat areas into the country."
When asked for further information on the number he provided, the department released a breakdown, saying that as of July 27, 2015, 1,300 Syrians from the 2013 commitment were in Canada, and a further 1,002 had been settled from the January promise.
They did not explain why information they had previously said would be unavailable until the fall was suddenly able to be released.
Of the 1,002, 173 were directly sponsored by the government, 29 were shared between the government and private sector and 800 were brought to Canada by the private sector alone.
Part of the challenge in meeting the original promise was that the private groups were caught off guard and took time to spool up their efforts; they are also likely to be responsible for the lion's share from the January 2015 commitment.
It wasn't immediately clear how much of Monday's pledge would be on their shoulders.
It's a distinction that matters, because it's clear the government itself can't follow through, said Andrew Cash, who as an NDP MP was responsible for forcing the government to disclose some resettlement statistics.
"You've got a Harper government that was unable to live up to its small commitment to 1,300," he said. "I don't have confidence that the Harper government would be able to live up to this commitment."
Monday's pledge is on top of the January commitment but the criteria for selecting refugees is similar — a focus on those persecuted for their religion.
In Syria, that means primarily minority Christian sects.
Cherry-picking certain groups, cutting off health-care benefits for others and the relatively small number of refugees from Syria the government is willing to accept suggests the Conservatives aren't actually committed to refugees, said John McCallum, who served as the Liberal party's immigration critic in the last Parliament.
"I suppose they want to give the impression they are humanitarian people to Canadians at large but I think their track record proves that is not true," he said in an interview.
If elected, the Liberals have promised to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees. Cash said the NDP have no specific targets but would consult experts in the field.
In July, the UN said the total number of refugees fleeing Syria has surpassed four million.
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