OTTAWA — A customary blackout on flights to Canada for refugees after Dec. 15 has been lifted this year as immigration officials toil to get through thousands of Syrian refugee case files while also preparing for ambitious new Liberal resettlement efforts.
But officials can't say whether they'll be able to make good on their plan to get through the existing inventory of refugee files before the end of 2015.
It's one of a series of uncertainties around the effect the Liberal pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by year's end will have on previous Syrian refugee commitments and on Canada's immigration system as a whole.
"Whenever you take on something as big as this, you have to ask yourself, where are those resources coming from and if so, are they going to be taking resources away from something else to make this happen," said Brian Dyck, chair of the Canadian Sponsorship Agreement Holder Association.
"You can either add new staff and new programs or you can borrow from things that exist, and I think a lot of sponsoring groups would be concerned that if this has an impact on private sponsorship of Syrians and Iraqis."
Each year, refugee arrivals are put on hold as of Dec. 15 due to holiday-related closures in visa offices and in settlement organizations. Lifting that blackout this year is one of many steps Citizenship and Immigration is taking to expedite matters following the public outcry this fall over the pace of Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis overwhelming Europe and the Middle East.
The Liberal commitment to resettle 25,000 refugees was also a response to that outcry, along with a promise of $100 million more this year for resettlement and encouraging the private sector to sponsor more people.
The files immigration officials are working on at present connect to a promise made by the outgoing Conservative government in January to resettle 10,000 people by 2018.
That deadline has since been moved up, with the department saying in September they intend to meet that target in a year's time.
"The government's goal is for all Syrian applications received as of Sept. 19, 2015, to have a decision by the end of December," the department said at the time, but would not reiterate that pledge when asked this week.
"It is premature to comment while we await the appointment of a new minister on Nov. 4," Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Jessica Seguin said in an email.
Of the 10,000 spaces promised in January, about 60 per cent were expected to be absorbed by private groups. Since January, the Immigration Department has received applications from those groups to sponsor 5,593 Syrians.
Rules around those sponsorships were also eased in September, including making it easier for non-official sponsors, known as groups of five, to sponsor people themselves. But only 10 groups have so far filed formal applications.
The remainder of the 10,000 are to be resettled by the government directly, in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as other non governmental organizations who assist in identifying and processing refugee cases.
Only 228 people have arrived in Canada as part of that group so far.
To identify the 25,000, the Liberals would work with the same organizations; whether the UN actually has the capacity to even identify 25,000 people is unclear.
Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act show the UNHCR has struggled in the past to meet Canadian targets for refugee resettlement, in part because the Canadian government didn't give them enough lead time to identify cases given the global body's own resources constraints.
The Liberals have promised a further $100 million to the UNHCR, but Dyck noted it's unknown whether that money is for aid or the organization's own capacity.
Dyck said what he's also watching for is how the Liberals handle the commitment to Syrians in addition to the demand from within Canada and abroad for Canada to resettle refugees from other parts of the world.
Ten per cent of Canada's annual intake of about 260,000 immigrations are humanitarian cases, including refugees. The Syrian promise alone takes care of that quota, he noted.
"Again, the question is where do you get that? Do you make the immigration pie bigger or do you make the humanitarian immigration slice of the pie bigger?"
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