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Minister of Immigration John McCallum, left, greets Khloud, centre, and her family at Pearson Airport in Toronto, Feb. 29, 2016.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The federal government gave groups hoping to privately sponsor Syrian refugees less than 24 hours' notice to meet an extended prioritization period for Syrian applications Wednesday night, further frustrating sponsors who have been waiting months to meet the families.

Some sponsorship groups were scrambling Thursday to get their paperwork together while others didn't even bother to rush their applications, after a last-minute decision by the government to extend the window for giving Syrian applications priority to March 31. However, even sponsors who successfully rush their forms are being told they will have to wait months longer than expected to resettle the newcomers.

In a letter to the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association on Wednesday night, Immigration Minister John McCallum and deputy minister Anita Biguzs said that privately sponsored Syrian refugee applications submitted up to Thursday would not count toward its cap of 10,500 private sponsorship applications the government accepts this year. However, the letter said the government probably won't finalize the processing of these Syrian refugees until the end of 2016 or early 2017.

That's nowhere near the processing pace during the height of the government's efforts to resettle 25,000 Syrians by the end of February, in which refugees arrived within a few months of their applications being received. After the Feb. 29 target was hit, sponsors were told they may not meet the refugees they sponsored until 2017 because they would be included in the annual sponsorship application cap for all privately sponsored refugees, which had already been exceeded. The delayed processing led to a public outcry from sponsors, forcing the minister to react.

"We wish to support the commitment Canadians have shown to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and have thus determined that all privately sponsored refugee applications already submitted for Syrian refugees – that is, up to March 31, 2016 – will be in addition to the spaces we will be making available for sponsorship agreement holders as part of the usual allocation process for 2016, and will not be counted against the cap of 10,500," Mr. McCallum said in the letter Wednesday.

However, the minister's letter was met with mixed reaction from the private-sponsorship community.

Lifeline Syria board member Peter Goodspeed said his organization rushed to take advantage of the extension Wednesday night.

"The result has been a mad scramble to get applications, completed or no, in before the deadline," Mr. Goodspeed said in an e-mail. "Lifeline Syria brought in six staff and volunteers, who worked all night, took a two-hour break and returned again this morning to prepare and submit around 100 applications."

Former Toronto mayor John Sewell is part a group that recently privately sponsored a Syrian refugee family of five to come to Canada; he has remained well connected with the sponsorship community since. He said about 300 sponsors learned about the government's extension at a meeting in Toronto on Wednesday night, which Arif Virani, Mr. McCallum's parliamentary secretary, attended. He said sponsors were frustrated by the 11th-hour notice.

"People generally laughed at it. Come on, what kind of a joke is that? Twenty-four hours?" Mr. Sewell said. "We're dealing with very solid people here who have been out raising all the money. They just think that they've been slapped in the face."

Mr. Sewell said most of the sponsors he knows are not bothering to rush their applications for the March 31 deadline, because they know the Syrian families won't arrive until late this year or next.

Wendy Cukier of the Ryerson University Lifeline Syria Challenge, which works with Lifeline Syria to identify Syrian refugees for sponsorship, said her organization has overseen about 90 sponsorship groups that raised close to $4-million to resettle Syrian refugees. She estimates that 30 to 40 of those groups wouldn't meet the extended deadline, meaning the Syrian families they've sponsored won't arrive until next year.

"We have a lot of very disappointed people who have worked really hard to raise money, put together groups, rented apartments, collected furniture and we're simply not going to be able to process the applications quickly enough to meet the demand," Ms. Cukier said.

Brian Dyck, chair of the Council of the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association, said that while some sponsors were frustrated that they had only one day to get their applications together, the association welcomed the government's decision.

"It was a really encouraging letter," Mr. Dyck said. "We had asked to not count Syrian applications that went in from January 1 to March 1 [as part of the annual cap]. He [Mr. McCallum] gave us March 31, and so 30 extra days."

The letter said the department will also work to minimize the impact of its decision on non-Syrian privately sponsored refugees this year.