Refugee program begins shifting focus away from logistics and onto integration

OTTAWA -- Thousands of Syrian refugees expected in Canada in the coming days could spend up to two weeks in temporary accommodations -- including military bases -- before being able to settle into more permanent homes.

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Those conditions will still be better than what people have left behind in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, where nearly all of the Syrian refugees coming to Canada are currently living, said Immigration Minister John McCallum.

"I don't think the need to spend one or two weeks in interim accommodation will be a devastating experience for them, given what they have come from," McCallum told a news conference Wednesday.

"That being said, we'll attempt to make that interim process as quick as possible."

When the current resettlement program was rolled out in November, the government said incoming refugees would spend a couple of nights in hotels near the airport before transiting on to their final destinations. For those with private sponsors, there would likely be homes ready but what would happen with government-assisted refugees -- those whose costs are covered entirely by government -- was always a question mark.

Ordinarily, those refugees are welcomed by settlement agencies that run temporary housing facilities, and they stay there for a few weeks before a permanent home is found.

But those organizations always had concerns that the sheer volume of Syrians would overwhelm those facilities -- a fear that's now become a reality as the Liberals work towards bringing 25,000 people to Canada by the end of February.

The groups are providing daily feedback to the government on the number of beds they have available but at least three military bases are expected to be mobilized in the coming weeks to help house thousands of people.

Though government-organized flights of refugees will continue to land almost daily, the government's focus is now shifting to how to ensure the newly arrived are settling in as well as they can once those permanent homes are found.

"We have now demonstrated an ability to get the machine up and deliver the refugees to Canada," McCallum said. "The next phase -- it won't be easy, it won't always be totally smooth -- is to welcome all of these individuals to Canada."

Along with housing challenges, there is the reality of weaving thousands of new people into their new communities.

Ordinarily, refugees are given extensive pre-departure briefings to orient them to life in Canada, covering everything from the weather to bank machines, but those efforts were jettisoned for this program in order to get people here faster. So all of that needs to be done now.

"The integration phase is ultimately the most important phase, to make sure that these Syrian refugees become well integrated into Canadian culture, that they understand our cultural values and practices and that will be done through a number of mechanisms," said Health Minister Jane Philpott.

The challenge appears to be not just how Syrians are integrated into life in Canada, but also how Canadians adjust to their presence.

Last week, about a dozen people were pepper-sprayed by a man on a bicycle outside a Syrian welcome ceremony in the Vancouver area, an incident McCallum described as isolated. But it speaks to the need to guard against anti-refugee sentiment, he said.

One way to do that would be to make sure Syrians don't get better access to things like social housing than others, McCallum said.

To date, just over 10,000 Syrian refugees are calling Canada home -- a milestone for the Liberals' resettlement program that was reached late Tuesday, about two weeks later than originally promised.

A commitment that the first 10,000 refugees settled would be mostly those with private sponsors didn't materialize. The majority of new arrivals are instead those whose costs are being covered by the federal government alone, or in partnership with private groups.

In addition to the private sponsors, McCallum has appealed to the corporate sector to donate $50 million to help with settlement costs. He said over $20 million has been raised.

The Liberals first committed to a major Syrian refugee program last March, but its size and scope have changed several times. The current pledge is that 25,000 Syrians will be in Canada by the end of February and at least 10,000 more by the end of 2016.


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