TORONTO – There's little chance Canada will fulfill a pledge to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees before the end of 2014, said the director of the Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto.
Yet amid reports that fewer than a dozen Syrian refugees have made it to Canada in the last eight months, Citizenship and Immigration insists it is still committed to bringing in 1,300 refugees from the surrounding countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
The government itself is committed to sponsoring 200, with another 1,100 spaces open for private sponsors – typically churches, synagogues, mosques and community associations.
"We have begun to resettle the most vulnerable and are actively working with the UNHCR so we can fulfill our existing commitments, and then look at doing even more," wrote a CIC spokesperson in an email.
But with normal processing times for privately sponsored overseas refugees now in the three-to-four year range, Office of Refugees director Martin Mark doesn't see how it can be done without the government taking extraordinary steps.
"It would be unrealistic to say these people will arrive within 18 months (from the original pledge)," Mark said.
"Within 18 months to develop profiles, to develop the cases, to fill the forms and submit them, to find a church, do the fundraising, do the in-Canada processing and (processing) in the visa office and after approval arrange the travel so people can be landed within 18 months – that would be a dream come true."
Despite the July commitment to take on 1,300 refugees, Canada did not begin receiving referrals from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees until December. The process of screening refugees for resettlement only begins after the UNHCR has certified that a refugee meets the definition of a refugee and needs resettlement.
There are about three million Syrian refugees currently in the countries surrounding Syria.
There has been speculation that Canada has sped some Syrian refugees through background checks and medical exams so they can be interviewed this spring. If so, refugees interviewed before summer could arrive by Christmas, said Mark.
The Toronto Archdiocese has never failed to find a parish willing to take on the financial and volunteer obligations of sponsorship when the time comes, said Mark.
The archdiocese has committed to taking on Syrian refugees, but won't match the refugees with parishes yet. Mark wants to ensure the parishes won't have to wait years to meet their refugee family, as sometimes happened with Iraqi refugees.
The UNHCR has informally told refugee-receiving nations that it will request the resettlement of 100,000 more refugees in 2015. Canada typically resettles about 10 per cent of all refugees that find a new home in the West.
In 2009 Canada committed to resettle 20,000 Iraqi refugees and as of July 2013 had taken in 16,000. For three years that's meant 5,000 refugees per year.
"It's manageable. It's possible. Why don't we do something on that level with the Syrians, annually 5,000? I don't know," said Mark.
"I think there was no real consultation on that (July pledge for 1,300 Syrian refugees). Both the civic sector (private sponsors) and the government have the capacity. And the need is definitely there."