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Canada UNHCR counting on Canada to increase commitment to Syrian refugees

A Syrian Kurdish boy peers as children take lessons in a makeshift school tent in a refugee camp in the town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province. Turkey's maintained an "open door" policy for all those fleeing Syria's civil war and there are now over 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in the country.

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

A global call for help resettling more than 100,000 Syrian refugees must be answered in part by Canada, the United Nations refugee agency representative in Ottawa says.

The latest appeal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees represents an opportunity, Furio De Angelis said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"Canada is a very important country to the UNHCR not only for the support it gives to refugee programs but also for the leadership that it provides in terms of international standards of global protection," De Angelis said.

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"This is another occasion for countries who have a leading role in global refugee protection to really show their strength."

The UNHCR is making a pitch at meetings in Geneva on Tuesday for countries to help resettle more than 100,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war over the next two years.

The plea follows formal requests that began in 2013 for direct help getting some of the most vulnerable people out of refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

That year, Canada agreed to take in 1,300 refugees.

Private sponsorship groups were allotted 1,100 spots and the government agreed to directly resettle the rest.

While the government's promise to settle 200 people has been met and exceeded, only 163 people being sponsored by private groups have made it to Canada as of the middle of November.

It's been a daily issue at question period for weeks and an ongoing source of frustration for the Syrian Canadian community who says the process is so cumbersome that some would-be sponsors are just walking away.

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De Angelis wouldn't comment directly on the delays.

"The resettlement program is a very complex exercise which includes a lot of different processing; it's labour intensive, it's logistically challenging," he said.

"There is experience in Canada . . . the results will come."

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander won't be attending the meetings in Geneva Tuesday.

Instead, Canada will be represented by its ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, but it was unclear Monday whether a further commitment would be coming from the government at the meeting.

"We really count on Canada," De Angelis said.

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"We are hoping that (Tuesday) we will have a good response."

It's estimated that 3.8 million people have been turned into refugees by the civil war raging in Syria since 2011.

Not all want or need to be resettled. The UN prioritizes who it considers the most vulnerable — among them women, children and survivors of torture — and asks countries to take them in.

Since 2013, only 43,528 spots for refugees have been opened up worldwide, with Germany and Sweden taking in the highest numbers of people.

Canada is not alone in the challenge of meeting commitments. Of 4,000 Syrians who have applied to go to the United Kingdom under a resettlement program there, only about 25 have actually arrived, according to British media reports.

Among the countries hoping to see Canada take on a larger role is Turkey.

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There are over one million Syrian refugees in camps there and the new Turkish ambassador to Canada says he has spent much of his first three months on the job talking to Canadian officials about the crisis.

"In those meetings with Canadian authorities, we are of course telling them we are thankful with what they are doing so far with international efforts," said Selcuk Unal in an interview on the sidelines of a photography exhibit at the University of Ottawa on Turkish aide to refugees.

"We are also asking them to do more to either increase their bilateral assistance to Turkey and Turkish efforts and/or continue with resettlement process they have started."

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