Canada is opening its doors to 1,300 people displaced by the Syrian civil war, including a couple of hundred spaces for those deemed at risk of harm in refugee camps such as abused women, gay men and religious minorities.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced on Wednesday that the Canadian government will sponsor and resettle 200 "extremely vulnerable" refugees from the Syrian conflict in 2013 and 2014. This came in response to a request from the United Nations.
The government will also accept another 1,100 privately sponsored Syrian refugees in 2014. Under this program, sponsors such as churches pay for the first year of settlement in Canada for asylum seekers.
The violence in Syria between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those seeking his ouster has driven more than 1.6 million to leave for neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, putting an enormous burden on these nations. The exodus is expected to keep growing with no apparent end in sight for the two-year Syrian civil war.
Wednesday was the first time the Canadian government has agreed to sponsor refugees from the conflict. Canada has accepted very few privately sponsored asylum seekers from Syria in recent years.
The Canadian government has already pledged more than $180-million to help Syrians, including $115-million to help refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries. This includes money for food, clean water, sanitation, emergency health care and shelter.
Mr. Kenney compared the Syrian asylum seekers to other groups that have fled to Canada over the years, noting this country has welcomed more than a million refugees since the Second World War.
"Canada was founded in part by refugees like the United Empire Loyalists who fled persecution during the American Revolutionary War, the escaped slaves from the United States ... for whom this was the north star of freedom; the Jewish victims of pogroms in Eastern Europe."
Accepting refugees is no way to fix Syria's humanitarian crisis, the federal immigration minister acknowledged.
"You cannot solve a refugee crisis involving millions of people by just seeking to airlift them to a handful of developed countries. That is completely unrealistic," he said.
But, he added, Canada is willing to do its part to help relieve suffering while the international community works toward a political solution.
"I have met with hundreds of Canadians of Syrian origin over the last year and have heard their anxiety and their desire to help those who are facing danger."
Asked what kind of vulnerable refugees Canada expects to sponsor, Mr. Kenney said those whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees considers most at risk in refugee camps among countries that neighbour Syria.
"We're talking about unattached women who have lost their families, who have been widowed and perhaps have been subject to sexual violence in refugee camps," Mr. Kenney said. "We're talking about perhaps gay men who are in a vulnerable situation in the camps. Or perhaps particular religious minorities who have perhaps faced threats of violence in the camps."
As always, Canada will screen refugee applicants carefully to ensure it is not accepting dangerous militants. Visa officers need only have "reasonable grounds to believe" the applicant is a security threat or participates in a radical group to deny admission. All refugees must submit fingerprint data to be checked against records in a number of other Western countries.