03/26/2015 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/25/2015 05:59 EDT

Canada Fulfills 2013 Promise To Resettle 1,300 Syrian Refugees

OTTAWA - The wars in Syria and Iraq are pushing asylum claims to their highest global levels in 22 years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Thursday.

And Canada should be doing more for those seeking to flee the ongoing conflicts, the opposition parties said as debate began on the expansion of Canada's military involvement in those wars.

Syrians made 150,000 applications for refugee status to 44 countries in 2014, making them the largest group that year, and Iraqis accounted for 68,700, the UNHCR said in its global trends report.

The situation mirrors that facing the globe after the Balkan wars of the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people sought refuge, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

"Our response has to be just as generous now as it was then — providing access to asylum, resettlement opportunities and other forms of protection for the people fleeing these terrible conflicts," Guterres said in a statement.

Canada is low on the list of destinations for asylum-seekers — most are seeking shelter in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon where refugee camps are in some cases larger than major cities.

But Canada is being asked to take in thousands of refugees from those camps as part of a global appeal by the UN.

Only this month has the Conservative government finally fulfilled a 2013 promise to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of last year — 1,306 are now in the country, according to information tabled in the House of Commons this week in response to a question by the New Democrats.

Work is now underway on a pledge made in January to resettle 10,000 more over the next three years, but the NDP's Megan Leslie questioned how feasible that was given how long it took to meet the first commitment.

"What is the minister's plan to ensure the government keeps its promises on time?" she asked during question period Thursday.

She didn't receive an answer.

A Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson said the department is on track to meet the new commitment, but declined to provide details. Who will be responsible for bringing most of those refugees to Canada is also unclear.

When the government made the announcement of the new pledge in January, it suggested that 60 per cent would be brought to Canada by private groups and they would resettle the rest. Since then, however, they have not committed to firm figures.

The goal for the 2013 pledge had been a similar 60/40 split, but it didn't work out as planned.

Only 871 privately sponsored Syrian refugees from 3,300 applicants had arrived in Canada by the middle of March, despite the fast-tracking of applications. So to meet the 2013 promise, the government raised its own share of the burden and resettled 435 people.

"Citizenship and Immigration Canada continues to work diligently to resettle some of the world’s most at-risk people, but local conditions, security concerns and logistical challenges that are outside of CIC’s control can contribute to processing challenges that can vary throughout the commitment," spokesperson Remi Lariviere said in a statement.

"CIC maintains flexibility within the refugee resettlement levels to meet our goals."

Since 2009, more than 20,000 Iraqi refugees have also been resettled in Canada, which the government says is the largest resettlement program in Canada in more than 25 years. A further 3,000 have been promised resettlement by the end of this year.

Both the NDP and the Liberals are calling for more action on refugee resettlement as part of the government's decision to expand the military mission in Iraq and into Syria.

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