Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau helps a young Syrian refugee try on a winter coat after she and others arrived Dec. 10 from Beirut to Toronto. CNS photo/Mark Blinch, Reuters

Step it up again

  • September 15, 2016

As traumatized civilians in war-torn Syria face little near-term hope of returning to their homes, Canada’s refugee resettlement program is running on low battery and needs to be re-charged.

Last September the nation was shocked by images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi after the lifeless body of the refugee child washed ashore in Turkey. His drowning factored into the October election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, which promised to bring 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015.

It was a bold pledge that naysayers panned as being logistically impossible to keep. But the initiative was widely supported in the wake of the heart-rending Kurdi photographs. It was particularly applauded by church and other private groups that for many months had been raising awareness and marshalling resources to privately sponsor Middle East refugee families.

The government did indeed miss its 2015 deadline, but by the end of February all was forgiven as 26,000 Syrians had arrived in Canada. A satisfied nation even overlooked that about 35 per cent of the refugees (8,954) were private sponsorships mostly in the system before the government mobilized. But despite some creative counting, the resettlement blitz was widely considered a successful initiative by a new government.

The project was still buzzing in March when the government committed to resettle 10,000 more Syrians before the end of this year. These would be in addition to the lengthy list of private sponsorships long in the works. So the expectation was that, by the end of 2016, the 14-month total of Syrian refugees landing in Canada might approach 40,000, a laudable figure when compared to most other Western nations.

But with 15 weeks to go, barring an immediate recharge of the resettlement program, hitting that target won’t happen. After the flurry to embrace 26,000 refugees in four months, just 4,200 have arrived in the six months since February. The energy of a year ago has been fizzling out.

That government fizzle is particularly frustrating for sponsorship groups that have raised money and made myriad other arrangements in expectation of the arrival of a refugee family. In the Archdiocese of Toronto alone, more than $3.7 million was raised to sponsor 154 refugee families, representing 407 people. So far just 44 of those families have arrived, leaving 110 families stuck in the Middle East. Similar stories are playing out across the country.

Cardinal Thomas Collins, while applauding the government’s intentions, is one voice among many urging action to address “those who have been left behind” in several regions of conflict. “We believe much more can and should be done,” he said.

 A year ago it took the death of little Alan Kurdi to get the government moving. Another tragedy shouldn’t be required to keep it going.

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