The system behind refugee arrivals

The arrival of Syrian refugees here is the culmination of a months-long process. The final stretch has been outlined partly in the five-phase plan put out by the citizenship and immigration ministry, but here’s a closer look at what’s been happening overseas and what was put in place to facilitate the process.

The first phase of the plan involved identifying potential refugee applicants. The Canadian government has largely relegated the task to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR); however Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has requested that a priority be placed on “vulnerable refugees.” Nancy Chan, communications advisor for the CIC, says the reason is an “effort to maximize the success in resettlement while minimizing security risks.”

These vulnerable refugees are listed as

  •      complete families;
  •      women at risk; and
  •      persons identified as vulnerable due to membership in the LGBTI community.

Currently, these refugees are primarily in three locations: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The UNHCR has operations in Lebanon and Jordan, whereas refugees in Turkey are being handled by the Turkish government.

Once a potential applicant has been identified, the UN sends out a text message to the cellphone number provided by the family. Officials say that’s the most reliable way to maintain contact. However, in an initial wave of messages sent late last year, of more than 40,000 messages sent, only 28,000 of the numbers were shown to be working.

Further complicating the government’s plan have been the results of a UN survey done in November. Messages gauging interest in resettling in Canada were sent out to refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. Only 6.3 per cent showed interest.

John McCallum, the new immigration minister, spoke on the numbers at a press conference held last month:

“Why there is such a low percentage is nothing I can speak on with certainty. I’m confident we’ll find easily 25,000 people who want to come here because we’re talking about millions of people who want to come here.”

He’s not wrong. Many thousands of resettlement applications are in process with the CIC.

The sheer number of refugees Canada is expected to process has resulted in 500 temporary visa officers being deployed to two visa offices in Lebanon and Jordan. Both of the offices are solely for processing refugees destined for Canada. Once a refugee has responded to a text message regarding a potential application, they go to these offices, and then through extensive security and medical testing.

An onus is placed on these two parameters because of the government’s stated concern for Canadians. One protocol says that “the health and safety of Canadian citizens will not be jeopardized,” for instance, and so applicants found to have communicable diseases are treated or quarantined until their condition improves — and only then do they advance through the process.

The Full Immigration Medical Exam, as it’s called, is a slew of tests which are done on all potential Canadian Citizens. The federal government is covering all costs of the refugee’s IMEs, a roughly $230 expenditure per person. The exam is exhaustive, and can include all of the following:

  • a physical examination;
  • a mental examination;
  • a review of past medical history;
  • laboratory tests;
  • diagnostic tests;
  • and a medical assessment of records respecting the applicant.

Once all of the requirements are fulfilled, the refugees are given visas and officially become permanent residents. But they still have to get here.

Early in this process, most arrived on aircraft coming into Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson airport and Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport. The aircraft have been CC-150 Polarises, the military designation for Airbus A-310s that the Royal Canadian Air Force has in its fleet. One CC-150 can transport up to 194 refugees.

But military aircraft usage for transportation will not be the norm. Instead chartered flights will be primarily used. Captain Thomas Edelson, spokesperson for the RCAF, has said that the military will only step in to provide support as needed, and only as often as once every 48 hours.

Instead, the flights will be chartered from commercial airlines and managed by the International Organization for Migration, an organization which has been resettling refugees since the Second World War. 

Once in Canada, the refugees-turned-residents have only one more barrier: the Quarantine act. As with all other incoming permanent residents, they are once again screened for illnesses, and provided medication and support as needed. After this, Canada welcomes the new residents and they travel to East York and other communities across the country.