OTTAWA — Multiple government flights of Syrian refugees will land daily in the final weeks of this month as the pace of the Liberals’ resettlement program intensifies with a goal of bringing 10,000 people here by year end.
The next flight, a chartered plane from Beirut expected to be carrying mostly government-assisted refugees, is set to arrive Friday in Toronto. A detailed schedule of the next set of flights is to be released early next week, officials said Wednesday.
An average of two flights a day is expected, though some days could see none or potentially as many as four. Most are expected to be private charters, though military planes remain on standby.
“In some sense, it is a challenge to have so many people arriving in the Christmas season, when a lot of people are wanting to have a holiday,” Immigration Minister John McCallum said.
“But on the other hand … it is the Christmas season, so in a way it’s a good thing — here we are at Christmas time welcoming planeloads after planeloads of Syrian refugees.”
So far, just over 1,100 Syrians have landed of the 10,000 the Liberals promised to bring over by Dec. 31 a total of 25,000 are to be here by the end of February.
What started out as a program capable of only handling a few hundred applications a week is now processing upwards of 800 files a day, with nearly 13,000 people referred for interviews to determine whether they are admissible. Some people have been turned away, but officials could not provide a number.
Bugs in the system, such as a lack of capacity to handle required medical exams at the processing centres being run by Canada in Beirut, Amman and Ankara, as well as a shortage in the number of biometric machines available for security screening have now been ironed out.
And on the other end of the program, there have been changes, too. The first three government flights that arrived in recent days taught officials several lessons. Among them — the need to get yoga mats for the airport floors so exhausted parents have somewhere to lay their equally spent children while they await the final few steps of processing.
McCallum said what the government can control is all in good shape, but it can’t control everything.
“If you’re a Syrian family, and you are told let us say on Dec. 28 that you’re processing has been complete and you’re welcome to come to Canada, you may not want to go on the 29th or the 30th or the 31st. You may want to say goodbye to your families and friends, you may have some assets that you wish to sell,” he said.
“We in the government of Canada don’t control that human element — we cannot say to an individual you have to come by the end of the year. That is wrong and we would never say such a thing.”
Meanwhile, the government has also ended a controversial court battle over refugee health.
The Liberals formally dropped the previous government’s appeal of a Federal Court decision that found the Conservative cuts to health coverage for some refugees and refugee claimants were unconstitutional.
The 2014 decision said the Tory move to curtail coverage was cruel and put lives at risk. The case stemmed from a 2012 overhaul of a program which covers health costs for refugees and refugee claimants.
The Conservatives argued the benefits were too generous and some people were making fake refugee claims just to access them. While they were forced to reinstate some benefits after the Federal Court decision, they were still appealing.
While the Liberals say they won’t pursue the appeal, they still have not reversed the cuts themselves, except for carving out an exemption for the 25,000 Syrians currently being resettled.
Health Minister Jane Philpott said the government will restore the program to what it was prior to 2012, but other adjustments are being considered.