POLITICS

Trudeau: 1st Airlift Of Syrian Refugees To Arrive In Toronto Thursday

12/09/2015 11:48 EST | Updated 12/09/2016 05:12 EST

OTTAWA— Around 300 Syrians are expected to be in Canada by Saturday as the long-awaited first flights under the Liberal plan to resettle thousands of refugees from the war-torn region finally touch down on Canadian soil.

The first aircraft is scheduled to land Thursday evening in Toronto, with a second flight arriving Saturday in Montreal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons during question period.

"Resettling refugees demonstrates our commitment to Canadians and to the world that Canada understands that we can and must do more," he said.

justin trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during question period. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

"It will be a great day."

While just over 400 refugees have arrived in Canada since the Liberals were sworn into power on Nov. 4, Thursday marks the start of a program that's been weeks in the making as officials in Canada and overseas have scrambled to help the Liberals meet their campaign promise to resettle 25,000 people.

Initially, that promise had been to bring all those people to Canada by year's end, but the government was forced to spread the commitment over a longer time period because of the logistics involved.

The first group of refugees will be flown to Canada on military planes, but the government says the rest of the flights scheduled for December are likely to be privately chartered aircraft.

"It will be a great day."

The first 300 arrivals are among some 10,000 privately sponsored refugees the government is seeking to welcome by Dec. 31.

Those with sponsors in the Toronto or Montreal areas will be given information on where and when to meet their new hosts, while those destined for other communities across Canada will overnight in their arrival cities before moving on the next day.

By the end of February 2016, the government is itself hoping to resettle 15,000 refugees, to be initially spread among 36 different cities where agencies have agreements for resettlement services.

Roadblocks to getting the program off the ground have included getting the United Nations to find enough cases to refer to Canada for possible resettlement, technical hiccups regarding biometric screening equipment and diplomatic wrangling with governments in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey over exit visas.

john mccallum Immigration Minister John McCallum says the government is increasing funds for groups with formal contracts with the government for settlement services. (Photo: CP)

Immigration Minister John McCallum said Wednesday that a logjam with the government of Lebanon in particular has now been cleared, which should make it easier for visas to be allocated.

"Two days ago, we were very worried about this issue, but thankfully, the government of Lebanon has responded very well, and we now have exit visas, certainly easily enough for the first two planes to come from that part of the world to Canada," McCallum said.

"We never put all our eggs in one basket."

But, that process could be slowed down anew following elections scheduled in that country for later this month.

An election in Turkey earlier this year has been partially blamed for the slow start to refugee processing there and McCallum said it is unlikely that any refugees currently in Turkey will come to Canada by the end of the year.

The most progress is being made out of the government's operations in Jordan, where hundreds of people a day are now being screened by security and health officers.

"We never put all our eggs in one basket," McCallum said.

"We always had three countries with which we were working from the beginning, and if one country produces more, another may produce less, but putting the three together, we are certainly working very hard to realize our targets."

The preliminary budget for the program is as much as $698 million. McCallum announced Wednesday that the resettlement agencies will be getting a $3.6 million boost to their budgets this year to cope with the influx of Syrians.

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