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Canada Conservatives to speed up process of Syrian refugee applications

Canada's Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence Chris Alexander speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa May 6, 2013.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The federal government introduced measures to resettle refugees faster, aiming to bring thousands of Syrians and Iraqis by the end of the year, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced Saturday afternoon in east Toronto.

Among the measures to speed up resettlement is the designation of all Iraqis and Syrians who fled their home countries as "prima facia" refugees, meaning the government will assume they are refugees because they are fleeing conflict zones, he said.

Prior to the announcement, the government required Syrians and Iraqis fleeing the civil war to prove that they had convention refugee status under the United Nations Refugee Agency, before being eligible to be sponsored by a Canadian community and "groups of five" sponsors.

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The new rules will expand the number of potential candidates available for public sponsorship, said the minister of citizenship and immigration.

"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," Alexander said.

Instead, visa officers will be instructed to focus security, criminal background checks and medical screening during their interviews, according to a news release.

Alexander said that security screening for refugees "will remain the top priority."

"We cannot ignore the security risks of jihadi terrorists seeking to exploit the generosity of Western nations like Canada," Alexander said.

The government will also appoint a special co-ordinator for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to work with refugee resettlement partners, he said.

Other measures to resettle current and new Syrian and Iraqi refugees within six months include doubling the workforce in the Winnipeg office (where all refugee applications are processed), sending more staff to the overseas visa offices, and accelerating the medical examinations.

Alexander said these measures will ensure the government's existing promise to resettle 10,000 Syrians will be complete, "a full 15 months earlier than originally anticipated."

The measures are expected to cost $25-million over two fiscal years.

Opposition parties who have been clamouring for faster government handling of the Syrian refugee crisis – and for accepting increased numbers of refugees – gave only grudging approval.

While Canadians, from individual sponsors to city mayors and provincial premiers, have been acting, Harper has been stonewalling, Liberal candidate John McCallum said in a release.

"Today he recognized that the Conservative government's policies were failing," said the Liberal. "He has refused to provide leadership on this issue, continually hiding behind fear mongering and bureaucratic roadblocks."

NDP candidate Paul Dewar said the government is not moving fast enough.

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"The appointment of a Syrian Refugee Coordinator is an important step in speeding up the arrival of refugees here in Canada but we don't have to wait any longer," Dewar said in a statement. "We could meet this initial commitment of 10,000 by the end of this year." He added the NDP would accept another 9,000 per year in coming years.

"We would lift the cap on private sponsorships, eliminate quotas and bureaucratic obstacles, and treat refugees equally."

With files from The Canadian Press

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