Canada scrambles to prepare for Syrian refugees amid unknowns

A crying Syrian refugee child is carried by a volunteer after arriving in a raft at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast, October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

By Mike De Souza CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Operating with a sense of urgency but few details, Canadian officials said on Tuesday they did not know how many Syrian refugees would arrive or when as part of the prime minister's plan to bring 25,000 displaced Syrians to Canada by year end. "I guess we just have to be ready," said Jennifer Fowler, acting director of multicultural relations for City of Edmonton. She said the five largest municipalities in the western province of Alberta were still waiting for details. "If we have to handle it, we will. Our service agencies may not have the proper resources, but they definitely have the will to support (the plan)," she added. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, sworn in this month after a landslide victory, has stood firm in his pledge to bring the refugees to Canada, using military transport and housing if necessary, despite criticism from political opponents that his Jan. 1 deadline is too tight to allow for adequate security screening in the wake of the Paris attacks. The leader of at least one province said this week the plan should be suspended, and another said the deadline was impossible to meet. But other provincial and municipal leaders as well as resettlement experts said they were gearing up to accept the refugees within weeks although they had no information yet about who was coming or when. "There are many unknowns at this point including confirmation of resettlement locations, timing and pacing of resettlement, and total numbers of refugees," said Bryan Leblanc, communications director for Ontario Immigration Minister Michael Chan. Canada's most populous province has previously said it could accommodate 10,000 Syrian refugees before the end of 2016. While Canada's immigration minister met Tuesday with city officials to exchange information about the latest preparations, detailed numbers and timing of arrivals were not made public. The sense of urgency but lack of information extended to federal civil servants and visa officers who are expected to travel to Beirut to screen potential refugees. "Everybody's ready to march, but nobody knows in which direction or how fast," said Michael Molloy, a retired diplomat who also worked as a manager on refugee issues in Canada's Immigration Department. The military, which could be called upon to fly the refugees to Canada and to feed and house at least some of them after their arrival, was also awaiting direction. "At this point, details remain to be determined," said Ashley Lemire, senior communications advisor at the Department of National Defense. (With additional reporting and writing by Andrea Hopkins in Toronto; Editing by Sandra Maler)