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Politics Canadian Forces to draft plan to help resettle Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees arrive at the Greek island of Lesbos on Tuesday. The incoming Liberal government has promised to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by Jan. 1.

Santi Palacios/AP

The Canadian Armed Forces are scrambling to determine how many Syrian refugees could be temporarily accommodated at military bases as they draft plans to help the incoming Liberal government fulfill a campaign promise to bring 25,000 asylum seekers here by Jan. 1.

Ottawa is considering private airplanes to bring the refugees to Canada. Military aircraft are available, and the CC-150 Airbus Polaris could bring as many as 190 per flight, but Forces officials say it is hard to beat the cheaper, high-density seating of a chartered wide-body aircraft.

The Trudeau Liberals, meanwhile, are hoping to tap the wave of popular support that washed them into office to enlist more Canadians to sponsor Syrian refugees privately. This would help defray the cost to Ottawa of settling 25,000 newcomers.

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Sources say the Liberals will call on mayors and other politicians in coming days to facilitate the arrival of refugees on their home turf after some prominent politicians pledged to sponsor Syrian refugees in early September.

Refugees will need to be screened, transported to Canada and housed somewhere until they can be processed and transferred to the care of provincial authorities and sponsor groups.

In 1999, Canada initially housed 5,000 refugees from Kosovo at CFB Greenwood in Nova Scotia and CFB Trenton in Ontario. They spent six to eight weeks on bases.

Forces officials say taking a major role in the transport and care of Syrians would eat up a significant amount of military resources in the short term, and whether Ottawa could bring all 25,000 to Canada by the new year depends on how much money the Liberals are willing to devote to the effort.

"It depends how much we're asked to do and how much is accommodated by other agencies instead, such as Citizenship and Immigration and the Red Cross," one military official said.

Sources say the Liberal transition team, which is headed by Peter Harder, asked the Forces about how to house refugees and transport them to Canada. Another option would be to charter a private ship.

"The Canadian Armed Forces stand ready to implement government direction when it comes," Department of National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said.

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"The Canadian Armed Forces routinely provides military advice and analysis to the government of Canada in support of its objectives and priorities. As such, the CAF continually engages in contingency planning in order to provide the government with a range of potential … options."

The Liberals will also urge Canadians to get involved, showcasing what is expected to be part of the new Trudeau government's modus operandi.

In the current context, this means the Liberals will rely on their supporters to help transform their ambitious target into an achievable goal. It is uncertain whether a significant number of Canadians can be persuaded to sponsor refugees privately. The defeated Conservative government's 2015 immigration plan predicted the maximum number of refugees that could be sponsored privately this year was 6,500.

As part of the transition process, the federal bureaucracy has studied the Liberal platform and its campaign pledges, and came back to Mr. Trudeau's team with options to fulfill its promises, including bringing in the 25,000 refugees. While the Liberals are sticking by their target, some experts are skeptical about the time frame.

"Moving 25,000 over the next eight weeks, with Christmas and winter at the end of it, is really ambitious, and I don't think it serves any practical purpose," said Mike Molloy, a former Canadian bureaucrat and ambassador who was involved in the relocation of Ugandan and Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s.

"There is no refugee agency in the country … that would thank you for hitting them with those numbers that quickly."

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Still, Mr. Molloy agreed it would be a good idea to use Canadian Forces bases to welcome refugees, to give them time to rest, undergo medical tests and get ready to integrate into Canadian society.

"The military is the only landlord in the country with that type of capacity," Mr. Molloy said.

The Canadian Forces would be hard pressed, however, to accommodate all 25,000 Syrian refugees.

The Canadian Forces Housing Agency's total inventory of military homes across the country is only 12,000 houses. Many can accommodate three or four people, but forces members live in a large number of them.

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