POLITICS

Air Canada Says It Can Help Airlift Syrian Refugees

11/09/2015 12:49 EST

OTTAWA — Plans to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by year's end could involve assistance from commercial air carriers, at least one of which has already offered space on its planes to the Liberal government.

Air Canada reached out to the new government following the election, offering its services to help ferry people to Canada as they flee the ongoing civil war and other unrest in Syria.

Though the airline can't fly directly into Syria itself, it could land planes in Istanbul as well as Beirut; an estimated 1 million people in Lebanon have registered with the United Nations as refugees from the conflict.

"Air Canada has offered to co-operate with the federal government to the fullest extent possible in any operation to transport Syrian refugees," spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email.

"At this point, however, we have only exchanged preliminary information."

Commercial aircraft are one of a range of options the government is exploring, Immigration Minister John McCallum said Monday as he announced a new cabinet committee specifically tasked with overseeing the resettlement program promised during the election campaign.

Other options include ships and military planes, and the government is also exploring housing refugees in old military bases.

"Every option is on the table," McCallum said. "Whatever works, what is cost effective, whatever will get them here safely and quickly."

Health Minister Jane Philpott is the head of the committee, which also includes McCallum and the ministers of heritage, public safety, foreign affairs, international development, defence and democratic institutions.

McCallum said the government is currently pinpointing refugees in three countries: Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

United Nations officials in Geneva and in the refugee camps and cities in those countries are also being consulted. The selection of the 25,000 would be done in concert with the global refugee agency.

The UN has been actively managing expectations in those areas as word of the Liberal commitment has spread, insisting that only those refugees selected according to a set of criteria will be eligible for resettlement in Canada.

Of the estimated 4 million people formally defined by the UN as refugees from the conflict, the agency has so far only made formal requests to resettlement nations to take in some 130,000.

The previous Conservative government had agreed to take in 11,300 by 2018 through a mix of government and private sponsorship, but moved that timetable up during the election. Those files are still being processed; as of the first week of October, only 2,563 people had arrived.

Furio De Angelis, the Canadian representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said he hopes Canadian citizens also have a thoughtful response to whatever happens in the coming months.

"With this co-ordinated, cross-government approach, it would be a little bit diminishing if on the 31st of December we are going to do the mathematics that, 'Oh no, it was 19,000, it was 23 (thousand), it was 17,000, it was 15,000," he said.

The broader point, De Angelis said, is that the Canadian government is stepping up in a major way. He said there is also significance in getting as many refugees to Canada as is feasible by the end of the year.

"We are talking about refugees who, if they are coming before the end of the year, they will be saved from a very very harsh winter."

In addition to the commitment to resettlement, the Liberals also pledged $100 million to the UNHCR, but De Angelis said he has had no talks with them to date about that financial promise.

McCallum said the committee is also exploring the costs of the resettlement program; in addition to the money for the UNHCR, the Liberal campaign platform said the refugee resettlement plan would cost $100 million this year and next.

The NDP said Canadians are looking for more detail than just a committee.

"This is the new government's first test on delivering the change they promised to Canadians," said NDP MP Jenny Kwan.

"We hope that the next announcement, on how they will achieve this goal, is coming very soon."

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