Vancouver, Ottawa ask feds for break from taking in Syrian refugees

OTTAWA -- Two cities, Vancouver and Ottawa, are taking a break from accepting any more government-assisted Syrian refugees as agencies in both cities try to work through housing bottlenecks.

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A surge of arrivals in the last month filled temporary housing to capacity and the settlement groups responsible say they need time to move people into permanent homes before they can accept any new cases.

The director of settlement for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. says the pause in Vancouver will last five days, beginning Tuesday. Even though the group added 700 beds to its housing stock, it is still taking time to find permanent homes, Chris Friesen said.

"Nobody is stuck in an airport for a week or something like that," he said. "Overseas, what it means is either they will put them on later flights or they may (send) them to new centres that have current capacity just to keep the flow going," he said.

Friesen said it also took more time than expected for the federal Immigration Department to process the cheques newcomers use to pay for their first homes and other needs.

In Ottawa, officials had been gearing up for large numbers of privately sponsored refugees but what came first was the influx of government-assisted ones, filling the available beds. A delay in accepting new government-assisted refugees could last as long as a week.

"The timing just needs to be spread out a bit, it's just been this huge influx over a two-week period," said Leslie Emory, the executive director of the Ottawa Immigrant Community Services Organization.

The pause only applies to government-assisted refugees, those whose costs are covered entirely by the federal government.

Upon arrival in Canada, they are sent to one of 36 cities that have resettlement agreements with the government. Of the 25,000 Syrians the Liberals plan to bring in by the end of February, about 15,000 are to be part of that category and 5,932 have arrived so far.

An early element of the resettlement plan called for refugees to be housed temporarily at military bases in Ontario and Quebec until permanent homes could be found, but that is now considered an option of last resort. No bases have taken refugees so far.

A spokesperson for the Immigration Department said the size of the refugee resettlement operations brings challenges and the department is working with communities buckling under the strain. The spokesperson did not immediately say whether other communities had requested a pause.

Privately sponsored refugees will continue to arrive in both Vancouver and Ottawa.

Immigration Minister John McCallum said Monday the resettlement challenge is on the government's mind. One thing he said is under consideration is finding a way to get Syrians into more French-speaking communities.

McCallum says more than 90 per cent of refugees that have arrived don't speak either of the official languages, creating what he calls a blank slate for refugees and provinces to teach them either English or French.

But language-training courses are in high demand across the country. Friesen said. While some cities have no wait lists, others see new immigrants wait for over a year.

-- With files from Jordan Press in Saint Andrews, N.B.


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