Requests for pause in flow of refugees to Canada likely to hurt ambitious February goal

[A family of Syrian refugees are being interviewed by authorities in hope of being approved for passage to Canada at a refugee processing centre in Amman, Jordan, on November 29, 2015. photo: The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson]

As more Canadian cities request a time-out from receiving Syrian refugees, the door is opening for critics to say “we told you so.”

A veteran of many such refugee-resettlement efforts says the new Liberal government’s intentions were good and its speedy action praiseworthy. But he wishes Ottawa had listened more to the feedback it was getting from the non-profit agencies who warned it would be very hard to ramp up resources fast enough to meet the Liberals’ ambitious goal.

During the summer-fall election campaign, Justin Trudeau promised a Liberal government would accept 25,000 Syrian refugees – privately sponsored and federally assisted – by the end of 2015. Barely a month into power, Citizenship, Refugees and Immigration Minister John McCallum revised the target to 10,000 by the end of December and 25,000 by March 1st.

The change initially was spurred by delays in processing applicants in host countries in the Middle East and then by the need to get aircraft to bring them to Canada.

Now that the stream has increased, arrivals are running up against a crunch of available resources in Canada, including a lack of available housing in major cities and staff at resettlement agencies to help them transition to Canadian life.

Vancouver, where affordable housing is at a premium the best of times, was the first to request a few days’ pause. It’s been followed by similar requests from Ottawa, Toronto and Halifax, according to a spokesman in McCallum’s department.

“We have received requests to slow down arrivals in some communities,” Michel Cimpaye told Yahoo Canada via email. “We are accommodating those requests to ensure that in the end, the refugees are well taken care of.”

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Cimpaye said the department is working with resettlement assistance organizations to alleviate the strain.

“At most, new arrivals in these situations are being delayed by a few days,” he said.

More than 11,000 Syrian refugees have arrived since November

The government appears committed to resettling 25,000 refugees by the end of next month. As of Jan. 19, Canada has accepted 17,695 Syrians for resettlement, with 11,866 having arrived since Nov. 4. Another 14,768 applications are still in progress, according to the department’s web site.

But Michael Malloy doubt’s they make it.

The pause came as no surprise to Malloy, a former diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs (now called Global Affairs), including a stint as ambassador to Jordan. While working at Immigration, he helped organize a number of large-scale refugee movements, notably the settlement of 60,000 so-called Vietnamese boat people.

“I think this was somewhat predictable but until they bumped into it I’m not sure they really, on the political level, understood,” Malloy, a part-time professor at the University of Ottawa School of Public and International Affairs, said in an interview with Yahoo Canada.

“They have been very concerned about the optics and what [the media] would say if they didn’t meet the target. They’re gradually learning as a government that this country has enormous capacity but you can’t push everything through the door on the same day, and that’s what they tried to do.”

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The network of non-governmental agencies responsible for helping refugees settle in Canada are among the best in the world, said Malloy. But it quickly became clear that they could not scale up their efforts fast enough to meet the Liberal government’s demanding schedule timeline.

“So you’ve got a situation where an organization in Vancouver which might be well staffed to handle say 1,000 government-assisted refugees in a year is not well staffed [enough] to get that many in a month,” he said.

It is taking longer to find suitable housing, especially in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, where “accommodation isn’t exactly growing on trees,” Malloy said. In Ottawa, for example, the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, normally has to find housing for 500 refugees a year – about 250 apartments – which even then is tough.

“They’ve got that now in the last month,” said Malloy.

The result has been Syrian families cooped up in local hotel rooms.

“The federal government can control everything up to the point the refugees arrive in the country,” said Malloy.

“After that it’s these agencies, these stand-alone agencies that are funded by the feds, the provinces, United Way and all that. That’s what it rests on today. They’ve got to keep them completely in the loop.”

Agencies did not get federal money until year-end

Federal money did not begin to flow to resettlement agencies until the end of December, which delayed their ability to scale up staffing to meet the government’s target, said Malloy.

“For something like this, you can’t just hire anybody off the street and turn them into an effective settlement worker,” he said. “It’s a complicated business.

“We’re doing an awful lot of things on the run and giving everybody a bit of a break, a bit of a breather, they’d be wise to do it.

McCallum changed the initial targets in December after hearing from refugee-assistance groups, which led to members of the former Conservative government to say they were right and that the Liberals’ unrealistic target was nothing more than an election ploy.

The government has remained optimistic it could meet its revised goal by the end of February but this week McCallum acknowledged more time may be needed.

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Malloy praised the government’s aspirations to try and address the suffering quickly.

“In my whole career I have never seen quite this problem,” he said. “Normally we complain about the government being slow in dealing with refugees. This is an odd reversal for everybody.

“It’s not the worst problem we could have, quite frankly. I think it’s taken time at the Liberal political level to learn about the realities of our capacity. I’m sure they’ve been told, because I’ve been involved in telling them.”

But Malloy is certain Ottawa won’t meet its target in the next six weeks.

“If I was giving them advice I’d say ‘why don’t you scale this back to 4,000 or 5,000 a month?’” he said.

Malloy pointed out that even with widespread support from sponsors, it took two years to resettle 60,000 Indochinese refugees in Canada in 1979-1980.

The best approach, he said, is to keep the privately sponsored refugees flowing into Canada as fast as possible. They’re unaffected by the resource shortfall involving federally assisted refugees.

“If a family’s privately sponsored, the sponsors have normally got accommodation for them, so you can move them in,” Malloy said. “They’re not going to be delayed at all.”

The new government will have to endure the armchair quarterbacking about their initial targets.

“I think overall everybody in the business is impressed with the energy they’ve put into it and the resources they’ve put into it,” said Malloy.

“But I think they needed to pay a bit more attention to the logistical advice they were getting from the refugee-supporting community in the country. They’ll learn that now and we’ll move on.”