Liberals’ Syrian program an act of political courage, IOM chief says

The decision to extend through February the deadline to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada was a good compromise on a program the world is watching closely, says the head of the International Organization for Migration.

OTTAWA — The decision to extend through February the deadline to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada was a good compromise on a program the world is watching closely, says the head of the International Organization for Migration.

There was never any doubt the Liberals would follow through on a campaign promise of a major Syrian relief program, the group’s director general William Swing said Tuesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

But the logistics required to meet their goal by year’s end were simply too daunting, he said.

“As we worked through this, talking to our Canadian counterparts both in Beirut, Amman and Ankara and here in Ottawa, we realized that it’s just physically not possible to bring 25,000 in by the end of this year,” said Swing.

“So we’ve come up with, I think, a good compromise — roughly three months until around the 1st of March, that’s what’s been agreed to and we’ll just see how that goes. That, I think, gives us a little more breathing space.”

The UN has registered more than 4.28 million refugees from Syria and has asked countries to take in a minimum of 130,000 people by the end of next year.

That’s not including millions who’ve left camps and other temporary accommodation and travelled by land or sea to European countries to seek asylum on their own.

Canada’s program meets a major need, Swing said, but he wouldn’t address whether it was one that required the deadline the Liberals attached.

“That’s a judgment, a policy judgment the government has to make,” he said.

“It’s urgent in the sense it sends a good positive signal to others that if Canada can do it, perhaps they should look at also following suit in that sense. Clearly, it’s been a good step from our point of view.”

For the Syrian program, the IOM is helping run Canadian centres in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey that are now processing hundreds of cases a day — 700 in Jordan, and about half that in Beirut, he says — in a bid to resettle at least 10,000 people to Canada by year’s end, and a further 15,000 people by the end of February.

“We’re quite optimistic about this and we’re very upbeat,” he said. “We think this is a humanitarian act that reflects a lot of political courage and leadership and vision.”

It’s still unclear exactly when the first charter flights carrying Syrians will begin arriving at the Toronto and Montreal airports. Though the prime minister has said it could be this week, Swing suggested it may not be until next week.

Both airports hosted reporters Tuesday to showcase some of their preparations, which include setting up welcome centres with food, water, play areas and prayer rooms and getting staff from several different government departments ready to conduct various screenings.

Swing was in Ottawa on Tuesday for meetings scheduled months ago with the government to discuss Canada’s work with the IOM.

The agency has been in charge of facilitating the movement of millions of migrants, including refugees, for 60 years and Canada is among its major partners.

But Swing said the situation now is unprecedented.

There are more people on the move now than at any other time in history, he said, because of simultaneous conflicts and humanitarian emergencies in Africa and Asia, and there’s a dark side to that manifesting itself in anti-immigration sentiment around the world.

“We have to change the migration narrative, which currently is very toxic, and bring it back to a historically more accurate reading of migration history, said Swing, who is American.

“Our countries were built on the backs of migrants and their talents.”

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