POLITICS

Refugee Resettlement Agencies Brace For Trudeau Government's Syrian Surge

11/10/2015 10:47 EST | Updated 11/10/2016 05:12 EST
Refugee resettlement agencies across Canada are working overtime to develop plans for integrating an unprecedented surge of refugees, without knowing how soon they'll arrive or whether their agencies' budgets will increase to meet the costs.

"If the government commits to this tight time frame — a matter of weeks — this will be the largest movement of refugees in Canadian history," says Chris Friesen, head of the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia.

New Immigration Minister John McCallum meets Tuesday with a cabinet subcommittee to put flesh on the bones of a plan crafted by officials in multiple government departments.

"The committee's function is to make this work, which involves getting this moving very, very fast and very competently," McCallum said Monday.

The committee will be run by Health Minister Jane Philpott and includes the ministers of defence, foreign affairs, Canadian heritage, public safety and international development. The minister of democratic institutions, Maryam Monsef, is also on the committee. She was refugee from Afghanistan.

"We'll have a good, solid, informed discussion on how to move this priority forward," Treasury Board President Scott Brison, another member of the cabinet committee, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the burden of welcoming Syrian refugees falls to agencies at an already busy time of year.

"We had hoped we would have more details," Claudette Legault, the director of programs and services for the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, told CBC News.

Groups involved in housing and health are meeting to anticipate accommodation demands and medical needs. Some refugees of the war may suffer post traumatic stress, while others have not had access to primary health care in five years.

A group of family doctors in Toronto is expanding their clinics, expecting Syrians, both those sponsored by government and the increased numbers from private sponsors.

Initially, the refugees may be housed temporarily on military bases in Canada, but within weeks they'll need more permanent housing.

And there is a scarcity of affordable housing in many cities such as Vancouver, and Toronto, which are looking at accepting three times as many government sponsored refugees than planned for this year.

Refugees receive the equivalent of social assistance for the first year from the government. In Vancouver, for example,  for a family of four, that works out to about $1,350 a month for food, shelter and transport, making finding an apartment a daunting prospect.

"Housing is the No. 1 priority," says Friesen, calling on Canadians to think about what they might contribute. 

"We're not picky. We'll take anything and everything at this point — rooms in people's homes, basement suites, apartment suites," he added. 

At this point it's unclear where the refugees may end up, but if they are distributed across the country, as current refugees are, even smaller cities like Prince Albert, Sask., Medicine Hat, Alta., or Victoriaville, Que., may be each asked to take more than 200 new refugees — four times the number of initial targets for 2015.

Municipalities and provincial departments will need to co-ordinate things like education. Up to 35 per cent of the Syrian refugees will be children and young people under 18. They'll need to join schools in mid-year, often without English skills.

McCallum expects he'll have more details to present to Canadians within a week. For now, the clock is ticking down to meet the Liberals promise of 25,000 new refugees by the end of the year.

What about other refugees?

The time-sensitive nature of the Liberal commitment to Syrian refugees will dominate the first few months of the government's actions on the immigration file and the ripple effect of that could impact other programs.

Each year, the government sets a range for immigration levels in all categories, and spaces for refugees and other humanitarian cases are usually about 10 per cent of the total.

Where resettling 25,000 Syrians by year-end fits into that and how it could affect immigration levels from other countries is a question many organizations have been asking in recent weeks, wondering whether it will mean other categories will be cut back or refugee resettlement programs from other areas of the world will be affected.

"We have not addressed that question yet but it will certainly come up and in general, my philosophy is to favour more rather than fewer immigrants, but the precise numbers are yet to be determined," McCallum said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"Our general mantra is we want to welcome newcomers with a smile," he said.

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