OTTAWA - Advocates for Syrian refugees languishing abroad are pushing the federal government to take special measures to cut red tape and speed up processing, saying Canada needs to do more in the face of a staggering crisis.
Millions have fled war-ravaged Syria since 2011. But fewer than 2,400 Syrians have been resettled in Canada during the last two years, part of an overall commitment to accept 11,300 people.
"This is a paltry figure relative to Canada's capacity to help and compared to the number already taken in by Germany and Sweden," the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said Friday.
Refugee resettlement is about the urgent need for protection, said the Council of the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association, which represents organizations that privately sponsor people fleeing danger.
"Sponsorship procedures need to be fast and efficient, so that lives are not lost in the current situation of endless red tape."
The call to do more comes amid global shock over the drowning deaths of two young Syrian boys and their mother, who apparently wanted to join family in British Columbia.
At an election campaign stop in Whitehorse, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday the government was "evaluating how exactly it is we process people" to make sure it is done efficiently.
"We realize that we have to bring in more and we have to do it more effectively and quickly."
Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokeswoman Nancy Caron had no immediate answers to questions about exactly what the department intended to do.
Furio de Angelis, the United Nations official representative in Ottawa on refugee issues, said in an interview the UN expects all countries — including Canada — to step up efforts. He said it's up to Canada to figure out the best means to improve the processing of refugees.
"The range of options is there."
The Canadian Council for Refugees and Amnesty International Canada have called for Syrians with family in Canada to be allowed entry immediately to complete processing in safety. Advocates also urge:
— More government resources and staff in Canada and at visa posts to keep up with applications from would-be refugee sponsors and reduce long processing times;
— Flexible measures, such as temporary resident permits and work visas, that would ease entry to Canada;
— Full government funding of its refugee commitment targets, separate from all private sponsorships;
— Waiving documentation requirements such as proof of refugee status — something the UN doesn't provide, for instance, to Syrians in Turkey.
It was just such a snag that resulted in an application from the uncle of the two Syrian boys who drowned this week being returned by Citizenship and Immigration. That roadblock, in turn, appears to have prompted the boys' parents to embrace an ultimately disastrous gambit — paying smugglers to ferry them across the perilous waters between Turkey and Greece.
Telling desperate refugees that they don't have the proper documentation to leave a crisis area is not the answer, said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. "Let's be serious. When you're fleeing and you're desperate you can't produce your updated driver's licence."
There were security concerns when Canada absorbed 60,000 refugees from Southeast Asia in 1979-80, said Ron Atkey, the Progressive Conservative immigration minister of the day. "But you had to trust the officers on the ground, trust the information you could get within the camps."
There's a "higher risk" in processing refugees from Syria today, given the radical warring factions in the region, but "I don't think it's so great as to justify inaction," Atkey said.
"The sort of bureaucracy stories I'm hearing just boggle the mind."