Too much 'make believe' in Syrian refugee program, former top bureaucrat says

OTTAWA -- As he watches his former colleagues go all out to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees by the end of this year, the civil servant who helped run Canada's last major refugee resettlement program says he's concerned that politics is getting in the way of policy.

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Gerry Van Kessel says he's frustrated by the game he feels the Liberal government is playing by constantly affixing and changing targets for their Syrian refugee program.

"There is an element of make believe in all this that keeps the focus on the make believe and not the substance," he said in an interview.

"And to what purpose? That's the thing -- they are doing something that the public approves of. And yet the public focus is not going to be on what they are doing but on the manipulation around it."

Van Kessel was the director general, refugees, for the immigration department when the Canadian government evacuated 5,000 Kosovars and fast-tracked the resettlement of more than 2,000 others over a period of several months in 1999.

Van Kessel said as soon as he, and other former immigration officials, saw the government's Syrian plan, they knew bringing over more than three times that number of people in just four months couldn't be done.

What's happened since has been nothing but politics, he said.

"It became a political issue for them -- nervousness around the fact that they are seeing they are not meeting their promise so they keep pretending they are meeting their promise," he said.

In March, the Liberals had called for 25,000 Syrians to be brought to Canada. During the election campaign when refugee policy became an unexpected issue, they pledged that's what they would do if elected -- "immediately" their platform said and they would work with private sponsors to do even more.

The "immediately" was later defined as the end of the year. But since the Liberals have been sworn into power on Nov. 4, things keep changing.

First, the idea that it would be 25,000 government-assisted refugees by year-end was clarified to mean it would be a mix of those and privately-sponsored refugees, though the Liberals would eventually bring over the full 25,000 themselves, they said.

Then, the target dates were changed -- 10,000 privately-sponsored refugees would be admitted to Canada by the end of this year, a further 15,000 government-assisted refugees would arrive by the end of February, and the remaining government-assisted refugees would come by the end of 2016.

But all 25,000 would be identified by year end.

Then, both the numbers and the date shifted again -- the immigration minister said last week that there's no guarantee 10,000 Syrians will be in Canada by the end of this week, though he said the full 25,000 should still arrive by the end of February.

But identifying all 25,000 by year end was replaced with identifying 10,000 by year-end.

According to the immigration department, as of Dec. 26, 2,413 had arrived. A further 1,452 were scheduled to arrive on flights on Dec. 27 and Dec. 28. How many will arrive in the final three days of the year is unclear. Nine government flights currently appear on the schedule.

Also as of Dec. 26, a total of 7,218 -- including those who have arrived -- have been approved to come to Canada.

A variety of reasons have been given for the changing terms, ranging from public pressure to take more time to ensure security concerns are addressed to weather forcing the delays of flights.

Government officials and the responsible ministers have held regular briefings with the press and refugee service providers to keep them abreast of the program changes but Van Kessel says that's all just political "mumbling."

There are two potential fallouts from affixing that much political pressure to get the job done: that bureaucrats feel the need to take shortcuts to make it happen and that other programs suffer as a result, he said.

For the former, it may not be known ever whether any corners were cut to get that many refugees to Canada in keeping with the deadline, Van Kessel acknowledged. And when it comes to other programs, McCallum has said that refugee processing from other parts of the world isn't being held back.

But Van Kessel says given the number of civil servants deployed to work on the Syrian program, it's impossible think other programs aren't suffering.

He said he thinks it's important that the Liberals be kept accountable for the deadlines and targets they've set, but just wishes they had taken a simpler path in the first place -- acknowledge the original promise wasn't going to work and then just get to work doing what they could, while providing updates along the way.

"The resettlement program is a damn good program," he said. "And I don't like this playing politics all the time with it," he said.


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