The Canadian government has approached Jordan about using the country's airport at Marka as the hub of the operation to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees from their temporary homes around the Middle East to new lives in Canada.
The Globe and Mail has learned that one option being considered would see Syrian refugees currently scattered around the region flown to Jordan once they are approved for resettlement. They would then travel to Canada via Marka.
The airlift is expected to begin next week. The government has promised to bring 10,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of December and a total of 25,000 by the end of February.
The largest number of refugees will come from Jordan, followed by Turkey and Lebanon. Lebanon was originally supposed to be the second-highest source country, but the Turkish government – which has taken in the largest number of refugees, at 2.2 million – complained to Ottawa and asked that the figures be adjusted. Lebanon hosts 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees, while Jordan is home to 633,000.
Canada is said to be keenest on the refugees registered in Jordan because the country's security services are believed to have a much tighter grip on exactly who they have in their country.
While Syria's border with Jordan is tightly controlled, the war-torn country's frontiers with Lebanon and Turkey are much more porous, leaving authorities in Beirut and Ankara with a less complete picture of their refugee populations.
It is likely the government will have to resort to either charter or military flights to meet its targets, which involve moving more than 300 refugees a day. There are only two regularly scheduled direct flights a week connecting Jordan and Canada, both of which are Royal Jordanian flights from Amman to Montreal.
The Marka airport is the smaller of two near the Jordanian capital of Amman. It handles mostly short-haul flights to tourist destinations within Jordan and sits adjacent to the King Abdullah I Air Base, which is the centre of operations for the country's air force and which is large enough to handle the C-130 Hercules aircraft the Canadian military uses for transport operations.
A facility near Marka will also be used as a screening centre for Jordan-based refugees headed to Canada. Ottawa is in the process of deploying 500 staff – about half of them Canadian Forces personnel – to Lebanon and Turkey, as well as to Jordan, to conduct a final round of immigration, medical and security checks on the refugees being considered for resettlement.
The logistics are still being revised on a daily basis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said on Wednesday it has been asked by Canada to provide a list of 7,000 Jordan-based refugees it recommends for resettlement. On Thursday, the UNHCR has advised that number could grow to as many as 10,000.
Sources told The Globe at least 3,000 more will come from the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon, again via the UNHCR office there, with a third group, believed to also number near 7,000, to be drawn from the Syrian refugees registered in Turkey. Unlike in Jordan and Lebanon, the Turkish government operates its own camps and independently keeps track of its refugee population.
However, those numbers appeared still to be in flux. "Unfortunately, we do not yet have confirmations regarding quotas from Lebanon," said Dana Sleiman, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR office in Beirut.
The remainder of the promised 25,000 will come from private sponsorships rather than lists drawn up by the UNHCR. The country-by-country breakdown of where the privately sponsored refugees will be drawn from is not yet known.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, speaking in Malta, said both Turkey and Lebanon asked Canada to accept refugees from their soil. "If we add all our requests, it would be much more than 25,000," he said. "But 25,000 is quite a commitment if you compare with the other countries."
He said the three countries now housing the Syrian refugees who will come to Canada have responded favourably to the plans. "They are so pleased that Canada is doing that. I have only received positive reactions from the countries involved – Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan."
In the coming days, the UNHCR's Amman office will begin a final round of interviews with those on the list it intends to recommend for resettlement in Canada.
The additional interviews of Syrian refugees being considered for resettlement to Canada are being done after hours and on weekends by a team of 44 UNHCR employees who are working the extra time voluntarily because they support what Canada is doing, said Aoife McDonnell, external relations officer at the UNHCR office in Jordan. Ottawa has not yet offered any additional funding for the effort.
Ms. McDonnell said Canada had instructed the agency to prioritize the neediest while making its list of proposed resettlement cases. "It has to be based on vulnerability. Not on languages, not on skill sets. It's about life and death," she said. She added it was the UNHCR that was approaching refugee families about their interest in moving to Canada, not the other way around. "This isn't an open applications process. It's closed."
While most media attention has focused on the massive Zaatari camp in northern Jordan – which is home to 80,000 Syrian refugees – those living outside formal camps are actually in more dire straits. While those in the camps are provided with basic necessities, 86 per cent of those outside the camps are living below Jordan's official poverty line of $3.20 (U.S.) per day.
An estimated 90,000 school-age refugee children are not in school in Jordan, adding to 400,000 such cases in Turkey and 200,000 in Lebanon. Child labour has become increasingly common as families struggle to make ends meet. So has early marriage as families try to move daughters out of their homes to reduce the number of mouths they have to feed.
While those with family connections in Canada are being prioritized, Ms. McDonnell said, even those cases have to meet socio-economic tests, as well. Another priority group is those with long-term medical issues.
"We are putting forward families where, for instance, a child has cancer and we can't afford their care here and neither can the family," she said.
Ms. McDonnell said the UNHCR is confident about the identities and backgrounds of the Jordan-based refugees it is recommending to Canada. Nearly all of them have been registered in Jordan for several years now – iris scans and other data having been taken upon their arrival – and the agency has interacted with them continuously since then.
While some of those approached have declined the chance to move to Canada, saying they would prefer to live near Syria and in a place where they understand the language and culture, many more are anxious to go.
The living standards for most refugees have fallen sharply over the past 12 months, with the monthly stipend they receive from the World Food Programme dropping to just $14 a person per month from about $34.
Aid agencies have also been rushing to help refugees prepare for what is expected to be a bitterly cold winter for those living in makeshift shelters, Ms. McDonnell said. "Certainly the timing of this [Canada's resettlement program] couldn't come at a better time."
With reports from Samya Kullab in Beirut and Campbell Clark in Malta