The Ontario government and an immigrant support organization are calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to cut red tape so that Syrian refugees can get into Canada faster.
Canada is failing to meet its targets for taking in migrants fleeing four years of civil war. The country missed its initial goal of 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, and appears on track to miss another target from earlier this year of taking in 10,000 over four years. So far, according to federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, the country has resettled only 2,300.
Experts and refugee support groups point to bureaucratic walls that are stopping refugees from getting into the country.
And a social media campaign this week called for the government to take in 200,000 Syrians, a target that would proportionally put Canada on par with the countries accepting the most refugees, such as Germany and Sweden.
On Friday, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins called on the federal government to bring in 5,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.
"We are running out of time," he said at a press conference in Toronto with Lifeline Syria, a group helping Syrian refugees come to Canada. "For far too many families in Syria whose lives have already been taken, whose families have been torn apart, whose homes have been destroyed, their livelihoods and their communities reduced to rubble, we have run out of time. The time to act is now."
Mr. Hoskins said the problem cannot wait until after the federal election on Oct. 19, but must be addressed now.
Among other things, he said, the federal government should eliminate a requirement for people to be certified as refugees by the United Nations or another country, a process that Mr. Hoskins said can take years. Instead, he said, the federal government must bring the refugees to Canada immediately and process them here.
He pointed to the 1999 war in Kosovo, when he worked as an aide to then foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy and managed to bring in 5,000 people in a single month, as proof that Canada can bring refugees in a lot faster than it has been doing so far with Syria.
He said the Ontario government would do everything it can to help refugees settle here. Mr. Hoskins also announced that the province would give Lifeline Syria $300,000.
So far, Mr. Harper has refused to speed up the system for taking in refugees. Asked on Thursday what he would do to accelerate the process, he dodged the question and instead emphasized the importance of helping Syrians by bombing the Islamic State.
Mr. Harper has, however, promised to increase the total goal to take in 20,000 refugees from 10,000. The Liberals have called for 25,000, while the NDP has said only it would focus on getting in the first 10,000 but made no commitments above that.
Alexandra Kotyk of Lifeline Syria called on the government on Friday to do five things that would speed up the process.
First, she said, Ottawa must simplify the paperwork, including exempting Syrians from the need for a status document saying they are refugees. She said the government must also deploy more staff to visas offices here and abroad to process applications, match all privately sponsored refugees with government-sponsored ones, develop measures for Syrians abroad to reunite with family members here and increase the overall number of refugees Canada is taking in.
"We believe these are not difficult things to do and, in many cases, we have done them before," she said. "These are our requests to the federal government and we hope to hear their response very soon."
She also called on all political parties to support bringing in more refugees, pointing to the 60,000 people from Indo-China that Canada accepted during the 1970s and early 1980s as a benchmark.
"The numbers that have been given by all parties is a starting point, and I'm hoping that they will increase them as they see the need is there," she said. "We brought 60,000 and this is a much larger crisis, so I do think we need to scale up."
Lifeline Syria was started this spring to organize people to sponsor 1,000 Syrians to settle in the Greater Toronto Area. The group is supported by an army of prominent Torontonians, including Mayor John Tory and five former mayors.
But chair Ratna Omidvar said private individuals can do only so much on their own. She called on the government to repeat the actions of previous Canadian governments to get more refugees into the country immediately.
"Without the will of the government, no amount of citizen support will actually help us get Syrian refugees to this country. In every major refugee crisis in the last century, it was political will that moved the mountains – to bring the Hungarian refugees in 1956, the Czech refugees in the 1960s, the Ismailis in the 1970s, the Indo-Chinese in the 1980s, soon followed by the Kosovars," she said. "I remember the leadership of prime minister [Joe] Clark, prime minister [Pierre] Trudeau, prime minister [Brian] Mulroney and prime minister [Jean] Chrétien."
Among other things, she said, the government used to send more visa officers overseas and the government would cut down on the rules or waive regulations to get people through the system faster.
"We can do this because we have done this before," she said.
Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, when asked why his party was promising to take in only 5,000 more Syrians than the Conservatives, said the country currently does not have enough supports to process refugees.
"I'd caution against getting into a game of whose number is bigger," he said. "I think what we need to do is build a comprehensive system that allows us to successfully integrate refugees into a new life. And so to do that you set a modest target at the beginning, you scale up to achieve that and then as the need grows and as the capacity is created, you can then scale up to a much bigger number."
He said the government must focus on actually achieving its current modest targets before ramping it up.
"Right now, our numbers are so low, it's unexplainable. It's unexplainable to Canadians. It's even more unexplainable to the rest of the world," he said. "What you're hearing from political leaders is that more is better. What you're hearing from Canadians is that a lot more would be a lot better. And I think politicians have a responsibility to work with those inclinations."