John McCallum Says Liberals Committed To Syrian Refugee Pledge

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OTTAWA — Newly-minted Immigration Minister John McCallum says a campaign promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees remains the Liberal government's goal.

And McCallum, who served as the Liberals' immigration critic in the last Parliament, says he's not backing away from Jan. 1 as the target date for fulfilling that promise.

With only eight weeks remaining, McCallum says he is waiting to be briefed intensely on the file.

He says he'll be reaching out quickly to different levels of government, non-governmental organizations and other federal departments, including the federal ministries of Defence, Health and Public Safety, which he says all have a role to play in the program.

McCallum's new portfolio, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, was announced earlier Wednesday at a colourful swearing-in ceremony for the new Liberal cabinet.

The Liberals made the 25,000-by-year-end Syrian refugee pledge during an election campaign in which refugee policy took on unexpected domestic significance. A photograph of a drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who died with his mother and young brother while fleeing Syria, captured the world's attention - and Canada's - when it became known his family had identified this country as a potential place of refugee.

Prior to the election, the Conservative government had committed to resettle 11,300 Syrian refugees over the next three years. Prior to Kurdi's death, the Conservatives added a campaign commitment to bring another 10,000, to be spread over the next four years.

The Liberals promised 25,000 refugee placements immediately, and $200 million split between the department and the United Nations to help with the refugee program.

McCallum didn't specifically comment on the funding, nor the timeline, in his brief meeting with the media following the Liberal government's first cabinet meeting Wednesday.

As he walked away from reporters, he was asked whether he was walking away from the deadline and he replied "not at all."

Ralph Goodale, the new Public Safety minister, said cabinet will work together when asked if the Jan. 1 deadline is feasible.

"We are going to bend every effort to get this job done, get it done right and properly and fulfil the commitment the prime minister made," he said.

Some groups working in refugee resettlement have expressed doubts that so many can be handled in just a few weeks time, though they don't question the overall resettlement goal.

Three decades ago Canada resettled about 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in a matter of 18 months, noted Brian Dyck, the head of the organization representing private sponsorship groups in Canada.

"It's something that can be done,'' he said in an interview earlier this week. "It takes focus, it takes people who are good at the logistical challenges and solving those but it is something we can do."

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