Key elements of Justin Trudeau's plan to quickly resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have yet to get off the ground, with the majority of the 500 Canadian officials who will screen and scrutinize the newcomers still waiting to be deployed to the Mideast.
Refugee groups across Canada that will be called upon to welcome the Syrians have yet to receive detailed plans from the federal government on how things will work once the asylum seekers arrive here.
In addition, overseas humanitarian agencies are struggling to adapt to Ottawa's evolving operations, details of which were only provided to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees over the weekend.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in London on Wednesday to meet the Queen and British Prime Minister David Cameron, conceded that his government altered its plans to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees to accommodate the changed perceptions about risk after the terrorist attacks in Paris almost two weeks ago. As Mr. Trudeau sat down with his British counterpart, he noted they'd be discussing the "very real security concerns that we're all faced with around the world and at home."
Liberal ministers unveiled their refugee-resettlement plan on Tuesday, but government officials and refugee groups say important details of the operation are still in the planning stages.
Before they come to Canada between now and the end of February, the refugees will be screened in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey by federal officials – mostly members of the Canadian Armed Forces, but also officials from the departments of Immigration and Public Safety.
However, the Canadian screening office in Jordan has yet to be opened, and the country's operations in Lebanon and Turkey still need to be beefed up with large numbers of new staff, federal officials said.
A senior government official said Canadian Forces personnel will make up as many as 250 of the 500 officials to be deployed to the Mideast to screen refugees, with these military staff members conducting health checks and taking fingerprints and iris scans from the refugees, to be checked against immigration and law-enforcement databases in Canada and the United States.
To date, 12 members of the Canadian Forces who will help with the effort have been dispatched to the region.
Evan Koronewski, a spokesman for the Department of National Defence, said Canadian Forces members are standing by to help as the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship assembles the plan. "The potential departure date for those personnel has not been determined … CAF medical personnel have been prepared to aid in medical screening and collection of biometric data like iris scans and fingerprinting."
More than 100 officials representing Ottawa, the provinces and refugee-resettlement groups are meeting in Toronto this weekend to hash out details regarding how things will unfold once asylum seekers arrive on Canadian soil.
"This has become the great Canadian national project," Chris Friesen, who heads the settlement programs for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said of the Syrian refugee effort.
The Liberals promised in the 2015 election campaign to bring 25,000 government-sponsored refugees to Canada by Dec. 31, but the plan unveiled earlier this week shows they have fallen short of that. Ottawa is now pledging to bring in 15,000 government-sponsored refugees by the end of February, 2016, with the rest to come later.
Ottawa is also bringing in 10,000 privately sponsored refugees, meaning asylum seekers whose first-year costs of settlement are covered by groups of Canadians.
These privately backed refugees were mostly in the system before the Liberals won the Oct. 19 election, which explains why they can be welcomed more quickly than the new influx of government-sponsored refugees.
Mr. Trudeau defended his government's decision to stretch the arrival of the Syrian refugees over a longer period of time.
"Canadians who have been extremely supportive and open to the idea of bringing in more refugees and demonstrating that Canada is there to help, had a few more questions," Mr. Trudeau said in London. "We realized that the most important thing is to be able to reassure Canadians that absolutely everything is being done to keep Canadians safe and, therefore, ensure that these refugees are welcomed as new Canadians, and not a cause for anxiety or division within the population."
The United Nations' refugee agency said it will shorten its screening system to deliver the 15,000 government-sponsored refugees Canada has requested in just a few months.
"Because of the short time frame, we may not be able to do all the process the usual way it's done," UNHCR spokeswoman in Canada Gisèle Nyembwe said. The UN refugee agency will bypass the detailed interview that is normally done at a secondary stage of the resettlement-selection process, which identifies candidates for a permanent move to one of the refugee-receiving countries, such as Canada, the United States or Australia. Canadian officials will likely have to pick up more of the screening burden.
Immigration Minister John McCallum said Canada will not reduce its intake of refugees coming from other parts of the world as a result of its emphasis on Syria.
"Some people have said, 'If you're giving all this attention to Syria, [the] commitment to refugees from other countries will be adversely affected.' I'm telling you now that is not true," Mr. McCallum said.
"We are proceeding with the pre-existing commitments on those other countries. Yes, some resources have been diverted to the priority of Syria, but not resources that would slow down or impede in any way our admissions of refugees from other countries."
Aoife McDonnell, external relations officer at the UNHCR office in Jordan, said the agency was planning to submit 7,000 Syrian names for consideration by Canada as part of the overall 25,000 figure.
The 7,000 would not include those refugees who are being privately sponsored, she said, so the actual number coming from the Syrian refugee population in Jordan could be higher.
"We have already started the identification of cases; staff is working after-hours and on weekends," Ms. McDonnell said.
She added that time was short because the Canadian government had only outlined its plans to UNHCR on Saturday.
"Our staff are essentially volunteering their time because there is a tremendous amount of goodwill to make this happen," she said.
Because the most vulnerable cases were being prioritized for resettlement, most of the Jordan-based refugees headed to Canada will likely be selected from those living outside the massive Zaatari refugee camp that plays host to 80,000 people and has grown into the fourth-largest "city" in Jordan.
Some 80 per cent of the 634,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan live outside the formal camps, and Ms. McDonnell said living conditions are actually more dire among those living outside Zaatari and other camps.
"The Canadian program will give these people an opportunity to get back to some kind of normalcy," she said. "People are just really tired of living in this situation, and really ready to get back into daily life, where they go to work and the kids go to school."
Ms. McDonnell said she understood the Canadian program would prioritize cases based on need. Among those the UNHCR is preparing to recommend to Canada are families with children needing medical care, including refugee children battling cancer.
Still, she said, Canada would not simply be taking in the most vulnerable cases. Some families the UNHCR had approached about possible resettlement had indicated they would rather remain in Jordan for the time being. "They're still hoping against hope that they can go back to Syria."
Those proposed for resettlement to Canada by the UNHCR will next undergo on-the-ground screening in Jordan by Canadian authorities. While many details of the plan are still being worked out, Ms. McDonnell said she believed the screening effort would begin early next week, and that flights to Canada could commence "very quickly" after that.
The government has said it will sideline applications that raise red flags.
With reports from Joe Friesen in Toronto and The Canadian Press