OTTAWA — When the last Canadian ambassador to Syria left in 2012, he didn't just close the door on nearly thirty years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, but also on the Syrian employees at the mission who were left behind.
"They were just so loyal and so wonderful, it was just so difficult to leave them behind," Glenn Davidson says.
"But that's what you've got to do."
Now, Canadians have got to do more, he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Davidson said from his perspective, given that the immigration system currently takes in 250,000 newcomers a year, there's no reason more can't be absorbed if more resources are provided.
"If this is a top priority for the government of now or the government of Canada in November, then I believe that things can happen more quickly," he said.
At least two former Syrian employees of the Canadian embassy in Damascus have come to Canada as refugees since 2012, among the 2,500 people who have arrived since the Canadian government began opening spaces for Syrians in 2013.
Altogether, the government has committed to admitting 11,300 people by the end of 2018 and the political parties have each made commitments on top of that.
The current program spreads out resettlement over time and criticisms have been raised that more ought to be done immediately.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper continues to repeat that the government is looking to improve the process, but not at the expense of security. Davidson said they aren't mutually exclusive.
"All of government is on a bit of a shoestring right now, so if there's to be a surge in priority, then it will either have to happen at the expense of something else or they are going to need overtime money, funds for teams to deploy to the region and they need it to be a priority — this becomes where effort is directed so that people get processed more quickly," he said.
"Security is really central to that and it's perfectly legitimate and necessary that that screening take place."
The security screening of refugees is handled by a variety of departments and begins with the collection of biometric data, a program launched in 2014 as the Citizenship and Immigration Department struggled to catch up on a backlog of refugee cases.
Part of the backlog was due to the closure of Davidson's embassy in 2012 as civil war erupted in Syria; thousands of files were transferred to other missions and it took time to get a handle on those cases.
The department now says it has processing times down to under a year for Syrian cases and they are being centralized in Winnipeg to help ease the burden at missions overseas.
Though the UN estimates more than four million people have fled Syria due to the conflict there, its refugee agency isn't seeking to resettle all of them, only those deemed in need of urgent protection.
The rest are likely to remain in camps until they can return home or, as the world has seen recently, they find their own, often deadly, routes to safety elsewhere. Canada and other countries need to step up their support to the UN and other NGOs working in the camps, Davidson said, as well as provide more assistance to the countries hosting them.
Many refugees will seek to go home at some point, he said, though what home looks like will surely be different when the conflict is finally over. Ending it will be a complex process, he said.
While Harper says the air war against ISIL is crucial to solving the refugee program, the conflict is far bigger, said Davidson.
The fractured nature of the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria and Russian efforts to block resolutions at the UN addressing Syria aren't helping, he said.
"The international community has to get its act together and there has to be a support and a will to try and bring peace to the region," he said.
While Harper often links the air campaign against ISIL to the millions of refugees, Canada's involvement with the latter predates the decision to join the air war in the summer of 2014.
The first commitment to Syrian refugees was made in 2013 — the Conservatives promised to settle 200 refugees under government care and allow 1,100 to be brought over by private sponsors.
Documents obtained under Access to Information show those 200 government spaces weren't created specifically for Syrians. Rather, in 2011 Canada had agreed to a UN request to keep 200 places a year available for emergencies and that year, the UN asked that they be given to Syrians.
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