Canada's newly elected prime minister Justin Trudeau remains committed to bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year, despite pleas from refugee settlement experts to slow down as the massive scale of the operation comes into focus.
Trudeau was applauded when he pledged the deadline during his campaign in September, right around the time the image of the dead body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach caused an outcry against the previous Conservative government for not doing enough to relieve the ongoing refugee crisis.
But with Trudeau's deadline now a reality after his Liberal Party snatched a majority government during the federal election last week, those on the frontlines of refugee resettlement insist that Canada isn't ready to handle the influx in such a short time period.
Trudeau himself has said he's prepared to airlift them in to speed things up, but that would mean they'd have to be housed at every air base in the country, according to one retired military officer.
Settlement workers say the government services refugees require to properly integrate into society are already operating beyond capacity.
"We need to keep that same number, but we need more time," said Chris Friesen, director of the Canadian Immigration Settlement Sector Alliance. His group says that while Trudeau's intentions are good, they hope the incoming government will extend their deadline to the end of next year. "The waitlists for adult language classes are currently between six and 10 months, and we don't have any first-language trauma support programs in place in most centers across the country," he explained.
This is crucial especially for Syrian refugees because the majority of them are facing mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
And with Trudeau's promise to airlift Syrian refugees to Canada en masse in order to get them here by year's end, it's even more important that agencies are given enough time to arrange proper housing and other basic needs since the Syrians will be dropped off at military bases upon their arrival.
In 1999, the Canadian government, then ruled by the Liberal party, brought in 5,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees, who were split among two airbases. Dubbed Operation Parasol, it required a huge number of volunteers, military officers, and immigration officials.
"If we're not ready, the implication is that they will have to stay on those military bases longer than necessary," Friesen said. "And you're dealing with families, but military barracks are divided based on gender. So when you separate families, including children, what will be the impact of that?"
Friesen added that the longer refugees spend on the military bases, the harder it could be for them to learn to be independent in Canadian society. "They will be going from urban apartments in Beirut, and other places, as well as camps, to being stuck on military bases where all their needs are taken care of in an artificial bubble."
On Tuesday, the Immigration Services Association of Nova Scotia told Global News that accommodating thousands of refugees over just two months could cause a health and housing crisis.
When asked about the criticism from refugee resettlement groups, Cameron Ahmad, spokesperson for the Liberal Party, said that the party's pledge will still be implemented after the Liberals announce its cabinet members next week. He did not say how the government plans to address concerns about the services available for refugees.
The platform states the Liberals will bring in 25,000 refugees "immediately," without giving an actual date. Asked to confirm whether the Liberal government indeed intends to bring them in by the new year, Ahmad replied: "Yes, that is our platform commitment."
"We put that platform together not because we thought it would help us get elected, but because we knew that these were things that Canada needed to do to succeed as a country, and for Canadians to have the success that we deserve," Trudeau said in an interview with CTV this week when asked how he would live up to his promise.
Experts estimate it will cost the government more than $200 million over one year to resettle the 25,000 Syrian refugees — around $250 million if the military is involved in bringing them here. The Liberal platform states the government will invest $100 million "this fiscal year" in refugee processing and settlement.
Many of the refugees bound for Canada are currently being processed at a rapid rate at 700 applications per week through a government centre in Beirut. Canada is poised to meet the previous government's target of bringing in 11,300 Syrians by the end of next year. Last year, a total of 7,573 government-sponsored refugees arrived in Canada.
A vast number of Syrian refugees are also expected to come to Canada from Jordan in the coming months through private settlement, in which the sponsor is responsible for their costs and helping them integrate into society for at least one year.
Martin Mark, director at the Office for Refugees at the Archdiocese of Toronto, agrees the new government should give itself enough time to properly prepare for their arrival. Since last year, Mark and his group, one of the biggest private sponsorship groups in the country, have brought in hundreds of Syrian refugees and are currently raising $3 million to bring in 100 families.
Mark warns that if government services are not adequately prepared to accept refugees, they could face unnecessary hardship.
"In other societies I've been to, resettlement efforts can fail when the government doesn't put enough resources in place. With fewer agencies in cities to help, you cannot expect that the refugees will be settled," he said. "You can expect many of them to go on welfare, or most of them will be upset and become a negative example."
As for Friesen, he will continue pushing for more time, but will make adjustments to meet the goals of the new government. "No country, I'm aware of, has put forward such a high number to resettle in such a short period of time," he said. "This will likely be precedent-setting."
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Image via Canada 2020