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Too many moving parts to place price tag on Syrian refugee plan: McCallum

Syrian refugees wait at the port of Lesbos island, Greece, to board a ferry travelling to Athens, on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Petros Giannakouris
November 10, 2015 - 4:30 PM

OTTAWA - Health concerns, security checks, housing and transport requirements are all elements of a plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by year's end set to be discussed by the Liberal cabinet on Thursday for a decision on the way forward.

But how much it is all going to cost is one detail that will take longer to reveal, Immigration Minister John McCallum said Tuesday.

In their platform, the Liberals budgeted $100 million for the ambitious resettlement program for this fiscal year, including money for settlement services, and $100 million for next year. A further $100 million was pledged to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Liberals have not said when and how they'd allocate the promised funding. McCallum said there are a huge number of variables at play in terms of how the plan will be implemented, but Canadians will get the full cost accounting, eventually.

"It's an ongoing process, but what I can guarantee to you, absolutely, is that we will not keep Canadians in the dark on what the costs are and that I can say with 100 per cent certainty," he told reporters after the first meeting of the cabinet subcommittee tasked with drafting the resettlement plan.

"What I cannot say today precisely the moment at which we will be able to release those costs, but certainly, it won't be forever, because our commitment is only two months away."

The Liberals still insist that the end of the year remains the target date for bringing the 25,000 to Canada, despite observations from many resettlement organizations that the short timeline will put massive pressures on local resources.

For its part, the UNHCR said Tuesday it is working with the Canadian government to identify refugees for resettlement in Lebanon and Jordan and efforts are also underway to find others in Turkey. The three countries have absorbed over three-quarters of the four million people registered as refugees by the United Nations since the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011.

Earlier Tuesday, the agency said one element of the program would give Syrians refugees temporary residency permits until their cases have been fully processed in Canada, after which they'd receive permanent residency and then be eligible for Canadian citizenship in four years time.

But the UN body later said those comments were premature and no final decisions had been made, which McCallum confirmed.

Still, the High Commissioner for Refugees called Canada's commitment a model for the world.

"Too many vulnerable refugees are languishing in countries neighbouring Syria, caught in a downward spiral of poverty and risk as they struggle to meet their basic needs," Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

"We need many more ambitious programs like this to offer Syrians a chance to start their lives anew."

McCallum said the government currently has about 10,000 applications already in the pipeline, following commitments made by the previous Conservative government to Syrian refugee resettlement. They had pledged that many spaces, initially over three years, to be filled by a mix of private sponsors and government. To date, just over 3,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since the government first began reaching out in 2013.

McCallum said it remains to be seen whether that group would form part of the 25,000.

"Obviously we need way more than that to meet our goal," he said.

Among the elements under consideration is how the refugees would be brought to Canada. One option is private airlines: Air Canada contacted the government immediately after last month's election to offer the use of some its planes.

Housing may be partially left up to the military.

"As a matter of prudent planning, the Canadian Armed Forces are currently reviewing accommodations available at bases and wings should the CAF be called upon to provide assistance in that regard," spokesman Evan Koronewski said in an email.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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