Reality hits the Liberal refugee plan

Fewer Syrians will be coming to Canada this year—a sign of reality casting clouds on these sunny days. But the Liberals’ refugee plan remains a big push.

A Syrian Kurdish woman crosses the border between Syria and Turkey at the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province on September 23, 2014. The UN refugee agency warned Tuesday that as many as 400,000 people may flee to Turkey from Syria's Kurdish region to escape attacks by the Islamic State group.  (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

A Syrian Kurdish woman crosses the border between Syria and Turkey at the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province on September 23, 2014. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

In different circumstances, the announcement of an ambitious plan to fly thousands of desperate Syrian refugees to Canada would have made for an unalloyed grand day in the young life of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

But Trudeau created the actual circumstances by running for election on a daunting promise to bring 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of this year. Under repeated questioning since the Liberals won power on Oct. 19—and despite many credible experts publicly expressing grave doubts about whether that deadline was reasonable—Trudeau and his cabinet ministers doggedly clung to their commitment.

Until today. And so the more prudent timetable and details revealed in Ottawa by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum, flanked by several other cabinet ministers who are working urgently on the file, could only be seen as a case of cold reality casting a shadow over a sunny campaign pledge.

Related: Maclean’s explains the Liberal refugee plan

Instead of 25,000 Syrian refugees arriving by Dec. 31, the government’s target is now 10,000. Rather than all of them being government-sponsored, an estimated 8,000 of those earliest arrivals will be privately sponsored. The remaining 15,000, required to reach the main Liberal goal, will be brought to Canada from refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria by the end of February, according to today’s plan.

McCallum cast his announcement not in dry logistical terms, but as a bonding moment in the making for the whole country. “This is not a federal project. This is not even a government project,” he told reporters. “It is a national project for all Canadians.” Pressed on the awkward fact that the plan doesn’t match up with Liberals had previously promised, McCallum again tried to broaden the frame of reference, from mere politicians and public servants, to the popular will. “Canadians want us to do it right—if it takes a little longer to do it right, take that time,” he said.

Conservatives put a different spin on how the concerns of ordinary Canadians forced the Liberals to adjust. “We are pleased that Mr. Trudeau has today listened to Canadians and abandoned a timeline that was not workable,” said Calgary Tory MP Michelle Rempel, the party’s new critic for immigration. And Rempel predicted that this was only the start of Trudeau learning the discipline of power. “It’s one thing to inspire Canadians,” she said. “It’s another thing to be accountable to them with accurate plans and accurate costing.”

Refugee experts who had been skeptical about the feasibility of the Liberal pledge tended to be crediting the government for getting practical, rather than blaming them for over-promising in the first place. “It’s really very positive that they’ve listened,” said Scott Heatherington, a former deputy director for the federal government’s refugee and humanitarian programs, who retired from the public service after serving as Canadian ambassador to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia from 2008 to 2011.

Heatherington also praised the move to include mostly privately sponsored refugees among the Syrian migrants who are brought to Canada before the end of the year. That shift away from government-sponsored refugees (first reported in Maclean’s on Nov. 12) means Ottawa will be better able to harness the humanitarian concern of thousands of Canadians who want to directly help. As well, privately sponsored refugees have a place to stay, provided by their sponsors. “The fact that they are emphasizing privately sponsored refugees, in the first intake, that’s pragmatic,” Heatherington said.

Government officials said “workshops” will be held to coordinate efforts among municipalities, provinces, private sponsorship groups, and others. Even with the longer timeline, the effort McCallum sketched is an enormous undertaking. For instance, the Canadian Armed Forces is preparing about 6,000 temporary beds, although the Liberal plan calls for most Syrian refugees to be flown directly to the communities where they will settle. So far, 36 “destination” cities are on the federal list. And it will cost $678 million over six years; officials say most of it will be spent in the first two years.

A lot of the work must happen before the refugees arrive. Syrians driven from their country by war and terrorism, and who want to come to Canada, must be registered with the United Nations in Jordan and Lebanon, or with the Turkish government in Turkey. They will be screened for security and health problems, including tuberculosis, by Canadian officials. They will be flown to Toronto and Montreal in privately chartered planes, for the most part, and then on to their new home cities.

All 25,000 of these future Canadians, fleeing horrific violence, are supposed to arrive in their wintry new country by the end of February. And government officials say still more displaced Syrians will be brought to Canada through to the end of 2016, enough to swell the total number of government-sponsored refugees to 25,000—the number promised by the Liberals—even when you subtract the thousands of privately sponsored refugees who are now being included in that first 25,000, those who will be resettled here, if the plan works, between Nov. 4 and Feb. 29.

“It still sounds ambitious,” Heatherington said of the Liberal decision to take an extra two months. “My sense is June would have been better.” Still, he says the government is showing “flexibility, a recognition of reality, but still the firm commitment to help.” And Heatherington, whose experience in the field stretches back to selecting refugees in Indochina in the mid-1970s, has no doubt Canadians will respond, as they have in the past. “I’ve had a lot of people phone me,” he said, “and say they want to do something, they want to help in some way.”

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