OTTAWA — The Liberals are committing to finding new ways to get Syrian refugees to Canada and into other countries as the United Nations seeks nearly half a million spaces for Syrians by the end of 2018.
But Canada did not pledge any more spaces directly at a high-level conference in Geneva on Wednesday devoted to finding new solutions for the refugee crisis.
That will come later this year, when the Liberal government intends to unveil a new approach to immigration, moving away from setting levels for a single year in favour of a plan that will cover 2017-2019.
Immigration Minister John McCallum is set to make three main commitments during his address in Geneva. (The Canadian Press)
"We will continue to pursue solutions to ensure the humanitarian treatment and resettlement of Syrian refugees," Immigration Minister John McCallum told the conference, which included the United Nations secretary general, the high commissioner for refugees and representatives of over 90 countries.
Italy and Sweden were among the only countries make new settlement pledges Wednesday, but the UN isn't just looking for direct resettlement.
"I ask that countries act with solidarity, in the name of our shared humanity, by pledging new and additional pathways for the admission of Syrian refugees," said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. "These pathways can include resettlement or humanitarian admission, family reunions, as well as labour or study opportunities."
"I hope this will help to initiate other such similar opportunities for refugee students in many other countries."
Canada pledged to explore one of those routes — expanding an existing program that brings refugees into Canada as post-secondary students, so they can continue their education and perhaps settle here.
"I hope this will help to initiate other such similar opportunities for refugee students in many other countries," McCallum said.
McCallum said Canada also wants the private sector more engaged in helping Syrians integrate into the economy. He said Canada will provide technical training and support to other countries to help them establish programs that will open up more spaces for the estimated 4.2 million Syrians fleeing the five-year-old civil war.
In an interview with The Canadian Press ahead of his speech, McCallum said Canada also wants to wants to work with other countries to find a way to get more people out of Syria.
Syrians need to get away from Assad
Syrians still inside the country cannot be registered as refugees. The only way they can legally get out is through family reunification or economic immigration programs.
Reaching them would require working with the International Organization for Migration, in places where it is active inside Syria, as well as the co-operation of the Syrian government.
"Where they work tends to be where the Assad government is in control," McCallum acknowledged, but said there is precedent for such a program in the Vietnamese refugee resettlement efforts of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Liberals have promised that by the end of this year, 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees in total will be in Canada and they have about 10,000 more to go.
After Geneva, McCallum heads for Germany, currently the only country which has opened up more spaces for formal resettlement of Syrians than Canada.
UN figures show Germany has made just over 41,000 spaces for Syrians available since 2013 and Canada has offered just over 38,000.