OTTAWA – About 300 Syrians are expected to arrive in Canada by Saturday as the long-awaited, first flights under the Liberal plan to resettle thousands of refugees from the war-torn region finally touch down.
The first aircraft is scheduled to land Thursday evening in Toronto, with a second flight arriving Saturday in Montreal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons during question period.
“Resettling refugees demonstrates our commitment to Canadians and to the world that Canada understands that we can and must do more,” he said.
“It will be a great day.”
While just over 400 refugees have arrived since the new government was sworn in on Nov. 4, Thursday marks the start of a program that’s been weeks in the making, as officials in Canada and overseas have scrambled to help the Liberals meet a campaign promise to resettle 25,000 people.
Initially, the promise was to bring all of them in by year’s end, but the government was forced to spread the commitment over a longer time period because of the logistics.
The first group of refugees will fly to Canada on military planes, but the government says the rest of the flights scheduled for December are likely to be privately chartered aircraft.
The first 300 arrivals are among 10,000 privately sponsored refugees the government is seeking to welcome by Dec. 31.
Those with sponsors in the Toronto or Montreal areas will be told where and when to meet their new hosts, while those destined for other communities across Canada will overnight in their arrival cities before moving on the next day.
By the end of February, the government is itself hoping to resettle 15,000 refugees, to be initially spread among 36 different cities where agencies have agreements for resettlement services.
Roadblocks to getting the program off the ground have included getting the United Nations to find enough cases to refer to Canada for possible resettlement, technical hiccups regarding biometric screening equipment and diplomatic wrangling with governments in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey over exit visas.
Immigration Minister John McCallum said Wednesday that a logjam with the government of Lebanon in particular has now been cleared, which should make it easier for visas to be allocated.
“Two days ago, we were very worried about this issue, but thankfully, the government of Lebanon has responded very well and we now have exit visas, certainly easily enough for the first two planes to come from that part of the world to Canada,” McCallum said.
But, that process could be slowed down again following elections scheduled in that country for later this month.
An election in Turkey earlier this year has been partly blamed for the slow start to refugee processing there and McCallum said it is unlikely that any refugees currently in Turkey will arrive by the end of the year.
“We never put all our eggs in one basket,” he said.
“We always had three countries with which we were working from the beginning and if one country produces more, another may produce less, but putting the three together, we are certainly working very hard to realize our targets.”
McCallum said the government currently has 11,932 applications in process. Canadian officials in Beirut and Amman are processing people at the rate of 400 a day.
The preliminary budget for the program is as much as $698 million. McCallum announced Wednesday that the resettlement agencies will be getting a $3.6 million boost to their budgets this year to cope with the influx of Syrians.