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Canada’s Harper Government Bows to Pressure, Says it Will Take in Syrian Refugees Faster

In the midst of an election campaign in Canada, the Harper government announced new measures to admit 10,000 refugees from Syria by September of next year.

by Jake Bleiberg
Sep 19 2015, 9:25pm

Igor Kupljenik/EPA

The government of Canada on Saturday announced new measures to accelerate its process for accepting refugees into the country, with the intent of admitting 10,000 new refugees from Syria by September of next year.

Speaking from Toronto, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said that in order to accelerate the resettlement process the government will designate all Syrians who fled the war-torn country as "prima facie refugees," which means they will no longer be required to show documentation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees attesting to their status.

"Today by designating all Iraqis and Syrians outside of those countries prima facie refugees we are greatly expanding the population of potential candidates for sponsorship," said Alexander.

"We will no longer have to spend time in interviews and with documentation satisfying ourselves that a refugee in Turkey, Lebanon or Syria is an actual refugee. Usually we go to the UNHCR to do this work. They have been overwhelmed by the scale of this catastrophe and there are very few Syrians who have received this designation from them." 

Alexander said that this measure will help cut 15 months off the government's initial plan, which had called for 10,000 Syrian refugees to be admitted through public and private sponsorship by the end of 2017.

The minister also announced that the government will be appointing a special coordinator for Syrian and Iraqi refugee resettlement, accelerating medical exams for those who have already applied for refugee status and cutting the application processing time down to six months. In order to facilitate this process the government will double the size of its task force at the Winnipeg center that processes applicants for refuge in Canada, as well as send more agents abroad. 

Related: 'What's Enough?': Pressure Builds to Bring More Syrian Refugees to Canada

The announcement came at the end of a week that saw key European countries closing their borders to the crush of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing the war and poverty-ravaged Middle East.

On Tuesday, Hungary closed its southern border with Serbia, the frontier of the EU, to all asylum seekers. The flow of migrants was diverted into neighboring Croatia, the Union's newest member, despite Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic threatening to follow suit and saying on Friday that his country will not and cannot accommodate more refugees. As Hungary deploys soldiers and erects fences along it's Croatian border and the European Union struggles for a unified approach to the humanitarian crisis, the fate of the migrants and refugees trapped in Balkan states has become increasingly dire. 

Although Canada admitted over 12,000 refugees to its shores in 2014, humanitarian and immigrant groups have been calling on the government for months to take greater action, especially in aiding people fleeing Syria, which was devastated by civil war long before the rise of the Islamic State in 2013. 

"It's obviously a step in the right direction, although it's sad and unfortunate that it took the government this long. This is a crisis that's been going on for four year," Gloria Nafziger, of Amnesty International Canada, told VICE News. "But it is certainly very significant that they've decided to recognize all Syrians and Iraqis as prima facie refugees." 

In Canada, the refugee crisis became central issue in the ongoing federal election after heartbreaking photos of Alan Kurdi — the three-year-old Syrian boy whose drowned body washed up on a Turkish beach dressed in a red shirt and velcro shoes — blazed across the media and into the national conscience earlier this month. Leaders and other members of parliament from Canada's major political parties have joined those calling on the government to do more, and all sides have accused the other of playing politics with the issue. 

On Sept. 3 Minister Alexander, who is running for re-election in the Ontario riding of Ajax-Pickering, announced that he would be suspending his campaign activities to focus on the refugee crisis. Since then NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said that if his party is elected on Oct. 19 they will bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees before the end of 2015. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced an ever more ambitious plan, promising that if his party forms government they will bring in as many as 25,000 refugees from Syria by January 2016.

The Conservative government's announcement that it will speed the processing of refugees comes just nine days before the Munk Debates, in which all three candidates will argue the merits of their proposed plans and their positions on other foreign policy issues. 

The government estimates that the accelerated resettlement process will cost $25 million.

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg