Canada is finding that many Syrian refugees are reluctant to travel so far afield, a stumbling block as the country works to identify thousands of newcomers to bring here within a matter of months.
Initial efforts in November by the United Nations to find Syrians in refugee camps keen on rapidly relocating thousands of kilometres to Canada as government-sponsored refugees bore relatively little fruit, new figures released by Ottawa show.
Only about 6.3 per cent of refugees contacted indicated they were interested in coming to Canada when the UN got in touch with them between Nov. 18 and 26. This was chiefly in Jordan but also in Lebanon.
The Canadian government, which released these numbers Wednesday, insists refugee interest has grown since late November – but could provide no numbers to back that up. They acknowledged many refugees in camps are still hoping they might return to Syria or want to remain in the region.
Immigration Minister John McCallum said Canada can still meet its targets despite reluctance among some.
"There's about four millions refugees that we can draw on. And so if a smaller percentage wants to come, we just contact more," he told reporters in Surrey, B.C.
"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, having seen many of these refugee applicants over there, spoken to a few through an interpreter, that there's a huge enthusiasm to come to Canada. It's just a question of the logistics of connecting us to them."
The Liberals have promised to bring 25,000 government-assisted refugees to Canada by 2016, with Ottawa saying it will give preference to the most vulnerable. They are separate from the 10,000 Syrians being sponsored privately by individual Canadians and groups, who will cover first-year living costs and have selected their own refugees – often relatives. Most of this second group will arrive later in December.
Beginning Nov. 18, the United Nations refugee agency sent text messages to more than 41,000 Syrians asking if they wanted to come to Canada by the end of February, 2016. They later found that only about 28,500 of the phone numbers worked.
More than 3,000 refugees ended up coming for interviews with the UN and ultimately only about 1,800 indicated they were interested in coming to Canada by February, Ottawa said. These were referred to the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship for screening.
A senior Canadian official, speaking at a background briefing for reporters Wednesday, said it's normal that potential refugee numbers get whittled down as the UN contacts prospective candidates.
"It's just a reality that as much as we are eager to welcome the 25,000 people … some of them want to stay close to home. Some of them still want to be able to return to Syria and are hopeful there will be a resolution to the conflict there," the official said.
The government still insists it's on track to bring 15,000 government-assisted refugees to Canada by the end of February, 2016. About 8,000 private-sponsored refugees are expected before Christmas as well as 2,000 government-assisted newcomers. The Liberal government promises to bring in another 10,000 government-supported refugees by the end of 2016.
The Trudeau government has branded the resettlement of thousands of refugees as a "national project" that will ease the four-year-old refugee crisis unfolding in the Middle East and in Europe as a result of chaos in Syria.
Still, the relatively low number of Syrians who initially accepted the invitation to enter the federal program shows that coming to Canada is not every refugee's first choice.
Some of them "hope against hope" that they will be able to return home eventually, said Paul Clarke, executive director of Action Réfugiés Montreal. He added that it is hard for Syrian refugees to grasp exactly how they will adapt to their new home, learn a new language and find a way to earn a living, especially if they lack the necessary education.
"The decision to cross an ocean forever is obviously a major one, and not one that people necessarily want to make," Mr. Clarke said in an interview.
Alexandra Kotyk, project manager for Lifeline Syria, said interest among prospective government-sponsored refugees could pick up after some initially settle in Canada. "Once reporting gets back from a community that has been resettled here – with people reporting back that this is a good place – then they will start to want to come in bigger numbers."
The Liberal government is still unable to state precisely where the refugees will be settling in Canada.
Mayors and provincial ministers have been seeking firm details on the geographic distribution of the first 15,000 government-sponsored refugees, both to get ready for their arrival but also to try to get as many of them as possible to settle in their communities. This comes amid concerns that a large majority of the refugees will choose to settle in Canada's biggest cities.
Bureaucrats say, however, that they are not used to determining in advance where refugees will be settling, and have refused to create firm targets to be met in coming months.
A senior federal public servant told reporters at Wednesday's briefing that a clear challenge is that there is now a thirst for "degrees of information in advance for this movement [of people] that never exists for other movements."
The official added that in normal situations, "communities didn't know normally exactly how many refugees would be arriving in the next calendar year." He added that bureaucrats will create "notional targets" by city, but added that the targets will be continuously adjusted to accommodate the needs of the newcomers.
Another federal official said that "destination matching" can only occur after government workers have interviewed refugees, pointing out that they are most likely to stay in an area if they have family members who are already present.
"We like to see people settle and not move out two weeks later," the official said. "If they have family members in a particular community, that is a strong indicator of where they should be settled as government-assisted refugees."
The bureaucrats also try to gauge whether the refugees have particular needs, such as mental-health care, when determining where they should settle.
With a report from Sunny Dhillon in Vancouver