First flight of Syrian refugees expected to arrive in Toronto tonight

OTTAWA -- They escaped a civil war that has left millions displaced and hundreds of thousands dead, their homes in some cases bombed to pieces, along with their livelihoods and future hopes.

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They fled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon -- living in refugee camps, shantytowns and private apartments, trying to figure out their next steps, watching as what they thought would just be a temporary move away from their home country began to look more permanent.

This week, hundreds of Syrians will be on the move again, this time to Canada with the first mass arrival of refugees as part of the Liberal government's commitment to Syrian refugee resettlement.

The first flight is set to arrive Thursday night in Toronto, to be followed by one Saturday in Montreal, together bringing an estimated 300 people with a chance to make a home in Canada thanks to private sponsors who've been working for months to prepare for them.

But those sponsors will still have to wait a little while longer to meet them.

Border agents, health officials and immigration officers will be on hand when the plane touches down to run the new arrivals through a battery of tests. They will spend the night in hotels before moving on to their new homes.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is planning to be on hand, and he has invited opposition leaders to be there too.

"It will be a great day," Trudeau said Wednesday in the House of Commons.

Montreal and Toronto will be home to dozens of such flights in the coming weeks as the government seeks to bring 10,000 Syrians to Canada by year's end, and then a further 15,000 by the end of February.

While Syrian refugees have been arriving with some regularity since the Liberals were sworn into office on Nov. 4, they've arrived on commercial flights. Today sees the first government aircraft return from a deployment specific to a program that began as a Liberal campaign promise.

Even when in opposition, the Liberals had called for Canada to increase its commitment to Syrian resettlement; the prior Conservative government had initially pledged to take in 11,300 people by the end of 2018.

But during the campaign, the Liberals revealed a plan of their own, promising that the government would take in 25,000 people itself and work with private sponsors to bring in even more.

They later went further, saying they'd bring in that many people by the end of this year.

Work on that started the very day the Liberals won power, with companies like Air Canada reaching out immediately to see if their planes could be helpful as part of the program. Once the first two military flights arrive, private chartered flights will shuttle the vast majority of the remaining Syrians to Canada.

It wasn't until the Liberals struck a cabinet sub-committee specifically designed to roll out the program that plans began to coalesce -- and one of the first things they heard from their international partners was a plea to reconsider their original year-end deadline.

Together, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are hosting close to 3 million of the 4.28 million UN-registered refugees who have fled Syria since the war began there in 2011.

The Liberals also broke their plan down into stages.

To meet the 25,000 goal, about 10,000 would be those who have private sponsors at the ready and in many cases, those files were already in the immigration system because of the previous Conservative commitments. Those would be the cases targeted for settlement by the end of the year; private cases are easier because the support structure is already in place.

Then, a further 15,000 spaces would be reserved for government-assisted refugees with the goal of bringing them in by the end of February 2016.

In recent months, thousands of Syrian refugees have been arriving in Canada but the Liberals are only counting those who've landed since they officially took office on Nov. 4 as part of their commitment.

As of Dec. 7, that number was 416. The government says they have 11,932 applications currently in the system.


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