03/27/2013 03:34 EDT | Updated 05/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Jason Kenney working on contingency plans if asked for help with Syrian refugee crisis

OTTAWA - Government officials are bracing for the possibility Canada is asked to take in people fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Wednesday.

But a large-scale resettlement program won't resolve the growing refugee crisis, Kenney admitted.

"We're talking about millions of either convention refugees or non-registered de facto refugees or internally displaced persons in Syria," Kenney said after announcing the expansion of a resettlement program for Bhutanese refugees.

"And anyone who thinks we can just bring people in by the tens of thousands doesn't understand the complexity of the situation."

Kenney has come under repeated criticism from Syrian-Canadian groups and refugee advocates for failing to provide a concrete strategy for the growing refugee problem caused by the two-year-old civil war.

The United Nations estimates more than a million people have left the country since 2011 — a number they say could eventually triple if no solution is found.

Kenney said officials from his department were recently in Lebanon and Jordan assessing the situation of Syrians who'd fled there.

"We are thinking forward in case at some point the United Nations does come to us and other countries to ask us to participate in resettlement," Kenney said.

"We're already making contingency plans for that."

He stressed, however, that the UN hasn't made that request yet and hasn't signalled that it will.

The focus right now is on humanitarian assistance, Kenney said, hinting that Canada is likely to contribute more to ongoing efforts in that field.

Kenney also cautioned that if a resettlement program were created, there would be strict controls.

"There is a terrible bloody war going on and there's frankly blood on a lot of people's hands, both on the part of the regime and many of the opposition militias," he said.

"We would have to be very careful about security screening and admissibility for anyone seeking to come in to a program like that."

Critics of Canada's actions to date have complained of delays in processing applications from Syrians already in Canada who have applied to bring their family members to Canada since the uprising began in 2011.

Kenney says the backlog is expected to be cleared by May.

Thousands of non-Syrians seeking resettlement in Canada as refugees have also been affected by the war there.

The conflict forced the closure of the Canadian visa office in Damascus, which was the processing centre for refugee applications from a number of surrounding countries.

The shutdown saw the number of refugees admitted by Canada last year drop well below targeted numbers.