A trickle of incoming Syrian refugees turned to a stream late last year, helping the federal government to check off one of the key targets from its 2015 election campaign.
Nearly 2,000 government-supported Syrian refugees arrived in Canada in mid-December, bringing the total to more than 25,000 since the Liberal government took power in 2015 and began to admit thousands of people displaced and endangered by the turmoil in and around the Middle Eastern country.
The surge of new arrivals in late 2016 came thanks in part to the government taking a longer look at “a number of” refugee applications from earlier in the year for security or medical reasons, delaying travel to Canada that may otherwise have occurred earlier, according to departmental officials.
People in the refugee resettlement sector were preparing for the December arrivals, said one sector executive. The executive and another said the government tipped them off ahead of time about the expected late-year surge. They said the few thousand government-supported refugees who arrived in the last couple of months of 2016 was nothing compared to the influx in the first two months of the year, when the government pressed to meet its target of bringing in 25,000 refugees through both private and government streams.
‘Complex’ security cases wrapped up mid-year
Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada could not provide statistics by press time on how many refugee applications required more time for security or medical screening, or how many of those cases were rejected. Spokesperson Nancy Chan wrote that those individuals had “more complex” cases that required more time to evaluate, but added the government used the same security and health screens for all Syrian refugees.
The government had promised to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees through its government-assisted and blended refugee programs by the end of the year—not be confused with an earlier target of 25,000 Syrians from private and government streams by the end of February.
Unlike privately-sponsored refugees, who are supported by individual Canadians, government-assisted refugees are supported by the federal government for their first year in the country, including aspects such as their accommodation, clothing, food, and help finding jobs. The blended program has the government splitting the tab for housing and other costs with Canadian sponsors.
It appeared through much of last year that the government would miss its end-of-year 25,000-person goal, perhaps badly. About 11 new Syrian refugees were entering Canada each day on average between March and the beginning of August, far off the pace needed for the government to hit the target it was then several thousand people shy of, according to data published by the department roughly every week.
However, the number of refugees arriving in Canada rose steadily in the finals months of 2016. About 56 Syrians arrived per day on average in mid-November; that jumped to an average of 77 per day by Dec. 4, then 136 per day between Dec. 11 and Dec. 19, when the government surpassed its target.
The federal immigration department says the surge in new arrivals late in the year was not out of the ordinary; immigration officials worked steadily over the months to meet their year-end target, and there is typically a three-to-six-month delay between when applicants are given their first interview and the time they arrive in Canada, according to emailed responses from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada spokespeople.
The government “made it clear” early on to refugee resettlement organizations that there would be a wave of refugees arriving late in the year, said Louisa Taylor, director of Ottawa’s Refugee 613, a coalition of groups that support refugees.
“Compared to the volume and the speed in the first quarter of 2016, this is nothing,” she said.
The government brought in more than 15,000 government-supported Syrian refugees by the end of February last year, the vast majority arriving after the Liberals took office in November. That crunch strained the resources of refugee agencies that helped to find housing, language training, and other forms of support for the new arrivals.
The number of Syrians entering Canada will likely tail off this month, and then increase towards the end of the year again in 2017, wrote departmental spokesperson Nancy Chan. The government has pledged to resettle another 25,000 refugees this year through all streams, though not only from Syria.
The latest data from the federal immigration department shows that drop off began right after the government met its goal. Between Dec. 19 and Jan. 2, 663 government-supported Syrian refugees arrived, in Canada. That’s an average of about 47 per day, or a little more than a third of the rate Syrians were arriving midway through last month.
“A spike in arrivals in December is a familiar thing in the resettlement world—the government is frequently trying to meet its targets for the year,” wrote Janet Dench, executive director for the Canadian Council for Refugees, in an email.
“[People in the refugee resettlement sector] knew that there would be more arrivals at the end of the year, and were preparing for it,” she wrote.
Fingerprints, interviews for every refugee
The three-to-six-month delay between when refugees are approved and when they typically arrive is used to issue them visas, give them time to wrap up personal affairs, and receive an orientation on life in Canada from Canadian officials, wrote IRCC spokesperson Nancy Caron.
Some Syrians also arrived later in the year because their medical or security screening took longer than the norm, the department said. Temporary health conditions that could interfere with travel, such as tuberculosis or pregnancy, could further delay arrivals, wrote Ms. Chan.
The government security screening process for Syrian refugees includes collecting biographical information, fingerprints, a digital photo—all of which are checked against immigration, law enforcement, and security databases—and an interview with Canadian officials, according to the immigration department.
The refugees typically take commercial flights to Canada organized by the International Organization for Migration, though when large numbers were arriving last winter, the government did bring over some groups through a military airbus and planes chartered from commercial airlines.
Refugee resettlement agencies will have to lean on the funds already set aside by the government this year to manage the newcomers, according to the immigration department, which includes a $250-million fund specifically for Syrian refugees, in addition to the money set aside for immigrant and refugee resettlement in general.
So far the government has admitted more than 21,000 Syrians through its government-assisted program and nearly 4,000 through its blended program. It has also brought in around 14,000 Syrian refugees through the private sponsorship program. The majority arrived prior to the end of February 2016.
The government was only able to meet its target of welcoming 25,000 government-supported refugees by the end of the year by changing the goal to include both the blended and government-assisted categories.
The original target the Liberals had put forward during the 2015 election campaign was to resettle 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. But after the Liberals formed government, they decided to push back that 25,000 target to the end of February 2016—a goal they ultimately achieved—and to count both government-assisted and privately-sponsored refugees toward the goal.
At the time, the government said it would still honour its goal of bringing in 25,000 government-sponsored refugees, with a new deadline of the end of 2016. It also included refugees brought in through the blended program towards that new goal.
The Canadian Council for Refugees criticized the decision to lump refugees brought in through the blended program with the government-assisted target.
The government has said that the blended program is used for refugees that would otherwise be brought in through the government-assisted program. The CCR argued in a July 2016 press release that the government should only be able to count half of the blended-program refugees towards its 25,000-person target, since it only puts up half the money to support them.
“In that way private sponsors will know they are supporting additional refugees, and not simply substituting and subsidizing the government commitment,” the release said.
Government-supported Syrian refugees arriving in Canada
Source: Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, as of Jan. 2
Dec. 19-Jan. 2: 47 per day, average (663 total)
Dec. 11-19: 136 per day, average (1,090 total)
Dec. 4-11: 128 per day, average (900 total)
Nov. 27-Dec. 4: 77 per day, average (536 total)
Nov. 13-27: 56 per day, average (777 total)
July 10-Nov. 13: 25 per day, average (3,097 total)
July 3-10: 10 per day, average (68 total)
39,671 Syrian refugees now in Canada, having arrived after Nov. 4, 2015, including:
21,751 government-assisted (totally government supported)
13,997 privately-sponsored (supported by Canadian volunteers)
3,923 blended program (half and half)