By Anna Mehler Paperny
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's refugee resettlement is off to a slow start this year, with just over 1,000 refugees settled through early March, government data show, raising doubts about the country's ability to achieve its ambitious 2021 target.
In the midst of a global pandemic, Canada resettled more than 9,000 refugees last year. While that was less than half of any national total since at least 2015, it still amounted to about 40% of the global number of resettled refugees last year.
Missing its target casts a shadow on the image Canada is burnishing of itself as a global leader in refugee resettlement. But it also leaves thousands of displaced people in desperate straits as their situation grows increasingly dire.
Worldwide refugee resettlement plummeted last year to its lowest point in almost two decades, as countries closed their borders in the face of a global public health emergency. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is striving to reverse that decline by securing commitments from countries to bring in displaced people.
Canada is seeking a lead role in this global effort and has been speaking with other countries about establishing specialized refugee streams. The country set its 2021 target at 36,000, its highest since 2016 and about four times its 2020 total.
A spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino said the total resettlements through early March topped 1,000.
"I am concerned about the ongoing challenges in our system, particularly with regards to the capacity of our international partners to move people across borders," Mendicino said in an interview.
He said the government remains "very much resolved" to meet its goal. But "we completely acknowledge we are still in the throes of this pandemic, and that may have an impact.
"It's too early to say whether or not we will be able to achieve that goal."
Between January, 2015 and February, 2021, Canada's resettled refugees came predominantly from Africa and the Middle East, with 76,300 of the 160,490 from Syria.
Meanwhile the situation for displaced persons is worsening, said UNHCR senior resettlement officer Michael Casasola.
Access to food is a challenge. People’s mental health is deteriorating. And many are struggling to support themselves financially, especially those who once relied on remittances that have now dried up.
And "there have been all sorts of challenges in the field” thanks to COVID, Casasola said – challenges as basic as getting a refugee from a camp to an airport.
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Alistair Bell)