Refugee Promises

On March 1st, the flow of Syrian refugees to Canada slowed from a torrent to a trickle. Has the Trudeau government lost interest in the file?

Between January 1st and March 1st, an average of more than 300 refugees per day were arriving, of which close to 100 were privately sponsored. The last government-organized flights landed on February 29th.

Ottawa confirmed that it will cover transportation costs for privately sponsored refugees who had already been approved or had their interview completed by March 1st, 2016, and that the 10,500 ceiling on the number of refugees from all countries will not apply to privately sponsored applications for Syrians submitted up to March 31st.

In his budget speech March 22nd, Finance Minister Morneau confirmed the commitment to bring in 10,000 more government-assisted refugees in the balance of the year.

That would require 1,000 arrivals per month but, in the eight week period from March 1st to April 24th, there were only 306. During the same period, 463 privately sponsored refugees also arrived.

There is no lack of supply. Almost 18,000 applicants are approved and awaiting travel, or have applications which are in progress. That total has grown by 3,000 since the beginning of March.

The pace of arrivals has picked up in the least two weeks but, at the present rate, the government will come nowhere near its stated goal of adding 10,000 government-assisted refugees by the end of the year.

Perhaps more importantly, thousands of Canadians who organized private sponsorship groups—and are fully prepared for arrivals—may be kept waiting for a very long time.

The original Liberal commitment (25,000 government-assisted refugees by the end of 2015) was logistically absurd, but it tapped into a real desire of Canadians to be helpful in this humanitarian crisis.

During December, January, and February, we witnessed countless scenes of families being warmly welcomed by both private sponsorship groups and well-organized government resources.

The crisis has not abated. And thousands of sponsorship groups are eager to welcome the families they have nominated.

Nova Scotia has received 1,000 refugees so far, against a goal of 1,500. Approximately 100 private sponsorship groups here are still awaiting arrivals.

Having done well until the end of February, the federal government seemed to lose focus on the issue. It has outsourced both communications and travel arrangements to the International Organization for Migration in Switzerland.

At the end of March, in the face of vocal complaints from sponsorship groups, Minister McCallum announced increased resources for privately sponsored refugees. Of course, this may further impede work on meeting the government’s commitment for refugees that it assists.

On April 7th, the Minister said more details on how this would all work would be provided in the following week—but, to date, no such announcement has been made.

It is, perhaps, understandable during an election campaign to announce goals without a clear plan for their implementation.

But, by the end of February, the government should have had a good understanding of the logistical challenges associated with their commitments for the balance of the year.

There was no clear plan then, and it is not yet clear that there is one now.

The Department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship has historically acted as a filter, not a facilitator. It has now reverted to its roots.

Working to speed things up does not come naturally to the department, but that is what is still needed. The sudden slowdown in arrivals tarnishes what has been a globally admired initiative and a positive collective experience for Canadians.

Amid his many travels, Prime Minister Trudeau should use one of his days in Ottawa to encourage Minister McCallum and the department to do better.

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