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Politics More Canadian cities taking in Syrian refugees to ease housing backlog

Immigration Minister John McCallum updates the media on the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, during a news conference, Wednesday, February 3, 2016 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

More Canadian cities and towns will start resettling Syrian refugees to alleviate the burden on municipalities that are saying they cannot currently house any more, Immigration Minister John McCallum announced Wednesday.

Mr. McCallum did not specify which ones are being considered to take in more Syrian refugees, but said at least one or two of them will start seeing new arrivals "within a week or so." He said more details will be announced "soon."

"That [housing for refugees] has, from the beginning, always been a challenge," Mr. McCallum said. "But the good news is that if there are some cities asking for pauses, there are other parts of the country eager to receive refugees."

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Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel told The Globe and Mail that she knows of at least one city willing to help.

"My understanding is that there's a lot of smaller urban centres, such as Medicine Hat, that are looking to help but are sort of feeling that frustration of not being able to tie into this lack of a [government] plan," Ms. Rempel said.

The increase in the number of cities and towns taking in Syrians comes after resettlement officials in some of Canada's largest cities recently asked the federal government to delay the arrival of more government-sponsored refugees, due to a housing backlog. Mr. McCallum acknowledged the housing problem as "significant" but "manageable."

Dozens of municipalities across the country, from St. John's to those in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, are already settling Syrian refugees. Last month, The Globe reported that Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver had asked the federal government to stop sending more Syrian refugees their way for a few days as they housed the large number of people who have already arrived.

In a statement Wednesday, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson's office said the federal government did not grant the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, the agency that has been helping resettle Syrian refugees in the city, its request for a pause. Rather, the government agreed to slow the number of refugees arriving a day.

Some of the government-sponsored refugees are living in hotels as they search for permanent housing. Immigration official David Manicom told reporters on Wednesday that Syrian refugees are not staying in hotels for more than a couple of weeks.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the government should have relied on more cities and towns to help with refugee resettlement from the start, in order to avoid the housing backlog. She called on the government to outline a longer-term resettlement plan, especially on the housing front.

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Although 2,700 spaces are available on military bases in Kingston, Ont., and Valcartier, Que., Mr. McCallum said they are not yet necessary. He added that they will "likely" be needed down the line.

The government has promised to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February. Mr. McCallum said he is "confident" the government will meet that target.

As of Wednesday, 15,685 Syrian refugees had arrived in Canada, while another 6,059 refugees had their applications approved but had not yet travelled to Canada, according to a government website. Of the more than 15,000 refugees, 5,468 had arrived in Canada as privately sponsored refugees, 9,088 as government-assisted and 1,129 through a blend of private and government sponsorship. Another 14,206 resettlement applications are in progress, said the website.

Despite the pressures on the system, the government plans to continue to welcome Syrian refugees throughout the year, with plans of resettling a total of 35,000 to 50,000 by the end of 2016.

Editor's note (clarification): Medicine Hat, cited by Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel, has taken in 84 government-sponsored Syrian refugees since Nov. 4. No refugees have arrived through private or other streams yet, and the city has indicated it wants to accept more.

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