John Geddes

Government alone won’t hit Liberal refugee target

The Liberals confirm it aims to hit its target of 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end through both government and private sponsorship

Refugees are seen at the port after arriving in Athens, Greece on September 24, 2015. (Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Refugees are seen at the port after arriving in Athens on Sept. 24, 2015 (Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The new Liberal government will try to hit its extremely difficult target of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of this year by including both government-sponsored and privately sponsored refugees in that ambitious total.

That will come as a surprise to many refugee groups in Canada, who had thought the 25,000 figure was to be made up entirely of government-sponsored refugees. Indeed, the Liberal election platform seems to frame the commitment that way.

“We have a responsibility to expand our refugee targets and give more victims of war a safe haven in Canada,” the platform says. “To that end, we will expand Canada’s intake of refugees from Syria by 25,000 through immediate government sponsorship. We will also work with private sponsors to accept even more.”

However, a spokeswoman for Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum explained by email to Maclean’s today that privately sponsored refugees will “form part of our short-term objective” of bringing in 25,000 Syrians by Dec. 31. Most of those 25,000, she added, will be government-sponsored.

But the Liberal government’s campaign commitment to bring in 25,000 government-sponsored refugees from Syria still stands, according to McCallum’s official. “Additional government-sponsored refugees will arrive into [2016] as the government meets a specific target of 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees,” she said.

Maclean’s exclusive: Internal document shows how Liberals plan to bring in 25,000 refugees

The rather complicated notion being presented here is that there are two separate, but related, targets: 25,000 refugees from a mix of government and private sponsorship by the end of this year, then more refugees to bring the government-sponsored total alone up to 25,000 by sometime early next year.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked at a news conference today about making good on his refugee promise, and specifically about the distinction between private and government sponsorship. “We’ve looked at various ways of bringing these people, but our promise was indeed to bring 25,000 government-sponsored refugees,” Trudeau said.

After a cabinet meeting today, McCallum was also asked about the distinction between government-sponsored and privately sponsored refugees, and said the Liberals are looking at both.

“What we have said from the beginning is that we are committed to government-sponsored refugees, and, in addition, we encourage the private sector to come forward as much as they can with private refugees,” he said. “So we want a mix of the two, and we won’t have further detail for some days, until we announce in great detail the whole plan of what we are going to do.”

Allowing for private sponsorships to account for part of the government’s 25,000 target by the end of this year will make that daunting goal at least somewhat more attainable.

Hundreds of Canadians who want to help, many organized through groups experienced in refugee sponsorship, have stepped forward since early September, when a heart-wrenching photograph of the body of a Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach awoke many to the plight of the refugees.

Many small groups who want to sponsor Syrian refugees are getting free legal advice through a program run by University of Ottawa’s Refugee Hub (here’s an interview with the law professor spearheading that project), and others are working through groups such as Lifeline Syria in Toronto.

Still, even allowing for a lot of private help, Ottawa faces a massive and rushed undertaking. As Evan Solomon, Maclean’s columnist and host of SiriusXM’s Everything is Political, and Yael Berger report here, the government is formulating a plan that includes flying thousands of refugees out of Amman, Jordan, to Toronto, Montreal and a military base in Trenton, Ont.

Ramping up to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees in the less than two months remaining in 2015 represents a massive increase over the 683 sponsored Syrian refugees who were flown to Canada during the eight weeks between Sept. 9 and Nov. 3, as Michael Friscolanti reported here.

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