POLITICS

Refugee Resettlement Using Military A Complicated Exercise: Experts

09/09/2015 05:55 EDT | Updated 09/09/2016 05:12 EDT

OTTAWA — New Democrats are proposing to use the Canadian military as a means to speed up the evacuation of refugees from war-torn Syria — a well-meaning but logistically complex and potentially expensive exercise.

Tom Mulcair floated the idea during a campaign stop earlier this week in Montreal.

"You shouldn't have people in this desperate situation falling into a bureaucratic trap where they're being asked to produce identity papers, as if you had time to renew your driver's license when you were walking across the desert with your family," Mulcair said Tuesday.

"So, you have to take that into account. Having more people on the ground there would be a good idea and, of course, we could use military assets to start moving refugees out of the area more rapidly, but it all begins with political will and Mr. Harper has shown no will whatsoever to start bringing a larger number of Syrian refugees more rapidly to Canada."

The notion of using the military is not without precedent.

The closest example to what the NDP has in mind is the 1999 resettlement of 5,500 refugees from Kosovo, which took place following a plea from the United Nations. Advocates for human rights have used the Balkan crisis as example of the extraordinary measures Canada could take with Syria.

But the more recent evacuations of Canadian nationals and duel citizens from both Lebanon in 2006 and Haiti in 2010 also provide useful benchmarks. Lebanon ended up costing taxpayers $100 million, according to internal federal documents.

All of the operations were studied in detail by both the military and international institutes.

The Conservatives say they are balancing humanitarian assistance with a military campaign against extremists in the region, including those threatening Syria. Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeated the government's promise to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years, in addition to 1,300 Syrians settled under a pledge made in 2013.

The NDP wants to see those 10,000 in Canada by the end of the year. The public outcry over the refugee plight intensified after the publication of the horrific images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach last week.

Provincial governments jumped in this week with offers of resettlement.

Experts in both refugee and ex-pat evacuations say an enormous amount of co-ordination is required with the international community, noting there are also important public health considerations in the aftermath of the operation.

U.S. researchers looked at the Canadian experience with Kosovars, where refugees were quickly airlifted to Canada and housed on surplus military bases — something that likely would be required if the NDP plan was ever put in motion.

"This (humanitarian evacuation program) was unique for many countries, including Canada, and involved a complex co-ordinated effort on the part of international, national, and local organizations traditionally involved with immigrants and refugees, settlement, and health," said the International Journal for Equity in Health in 2005.

In interviews with researchers, organizers said the tight timelines meant "there was a lot of 'scrambling' to prepare the infrastructure to receive a large number of people in a very short period of time."

Those involved "were surprised by the magnitude, immediacy, scope and scale of the response required. Most described feeling overwhelmed," the analysis said.

A separate analysis that looked at Lebanon and Haiti, written in 2011 for the Royal Military College, noted that non-combatant evacuations present a host of "sensitive diplomatic" and safety issues before the airlift even begins. The report said a lot of spade work should be done by Canadian embassies in countries where evacuees are assembled.

Without that front-end co-ordination, Canada risks embarrassing itself and making the plight of desperate people even worse, said retired colonel George Petrolekas of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

An evacuation of Syrian refugees is doable, as long as an advance team of diplomatic, military, health, security and immigration officials is assembled and trained quickly, he said.

Such a team could conduct initial screening at camps in either Turkey or Jordan, and evacuees could go through a second round at sequestered bases in Canada to satisfy security concerns.

Harper says Canada "cannot open the floodgates and airlift tens of thousands of refugees out of a terrorist war zone without proper process."

Petrolekas said security is a legitimate concern, but Canada could simply adopt the same posture as Germany, which is telling its hundreds of thousands of refugees they can come in — but not necessarily that they can stay.

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