Canada delays Syrian refugee influx

Michel Comte
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Young Syrian refugees play at the UN-run Zaatari camp, north east of the Jordanian capital Amman, on September 19, 2015

Young Syrian refugees play at the UN-run Zaatari camp, north east of the Jordanian capital Amman, on September 19, 2015 (AFP Photo/Khalil Mazraawi)

Ottawa (AFP) - Canada remains committed to taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees but only 10,000 of them by year's end, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government said on Tuesday.

The Liberal administration, which had pledged to take in the full number of refugees from camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon this year, said 15,000 would now arrive in the first two months of 2016.

The delay was announced as the deadly Paris attacks stir fears in Europe and North America that jihadists could seek to blend in with refugees in order to strike later.

Recent polls showed 54 percent of Canadians support slowing down the operation to host refugees if it meant avoiding possible security lapses.

"Canadians have said do this right and if it takes a little longer to do it, then take the time," Immigration Minister John McCallum told a press conference.

"And so essentially this is what we are going to be doing."

Officials said communities across Canada where the refugees will be resettled also need more time to prepare for their arrival, McCallum said.

"We want them to have a roof over their head," he said. "We want them to have the right supports for language training and for all the other things that they need to begin their life here in Canada, and it takes a bit of time to put all of that in place."

- Single males turned away -

Under the plan, all 25,000 refugees would be identified by December 31 from lists prepared by the UN refugee agency and the government of Turkey, and invited to apply for relocation to Canada.

A text message will direct them to Canadian visa offices in Amman, in Beirut and one in Turkey where 500 government staff have been dispatched to process applications.

Officials said only whole families, women in vulnerable position, or single men who are gay -- therefore deemed at risk of persecution -- or accompanied by parents as part of a family will be accepted. Other single males old enough for military service would be turned away.

Trudeau's government has sought to reassure the White House over the safety aspect of its plans, as President Barack Obama faces a barrage of opposition to his own scheme to resettle 10,000 refugees in the coming year.

"We will not compromise the quality of the security work that must get done," said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

"Safety and security have always been at the very top of our priority list," he said.

The first refugee flight is expected to take off in early December, but a precise date has not yet been set.

"We have a responsibility to significantly expand our refugee targets and give more victims of war a safe haven in Canada," Trudeau said in a statement. "The resettling of vulnerable refugees is a clear demonstration of this."

Before boarding chartered flights to Toronto or Montreal, the refugees would undergo security checks, which include the verification of documents, iris scans, fingerprinting and photographing, among other measures.

They will also receive a medical examination.

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said Canadian military transports also stand ready to assist in the massive airlift.

Upon arrival in Canada, most of the refugees are expected to transit straight through to the 36 communities that have offered to sponsor them. The Canadian military is making 6,000 beds available on its bases to temporarily accommodate others.

The cost of the operation could reach up to Can$678 million over six years, officials said.

Canada takes in an average of 250,000 refugees from around the world each year.

The UN refugee agency estimates that more than four million Syrians have fled the civil war ravaging their country which has killed more than 250,000 people.