At the heart of the debate surrounding the federal government's accelerated resettlement plan for refugees is a question of logistics: How to transport thousands of Syrian refugees across the world in two months, while guaranteeing their safety and the integrity of the process that granted them asylum.
At first, the task seems far-fetched, if not impossible. But in reality, the plan is not an implausible feat for the International Organization for Migration, the body charged with carrying out the logistical operations for departing Syrian refugees. The IOM has been facilitating the transport of resettled Syrian refugees from Lebanon since 2013, initially for the German government.
IOM is an intergovernmental organization that works closely with governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, mandated to provide assistance to Syrian refugees over issues related to migration management. In Lebanon, its work is focused on transit assistance for resettlement cases.
The organization will likely be key in arranging flights for refugees. "We have our current operation capacity, but we can increase it to meet the needs requested," said Fawzi al-Zioud, head of the IOM office in Lebanon, about the feasibility of meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's deadline.
In 2013, well before thousands of Syrians risked crossing the Mediterranean by sea to reach Europe, Germany was among the first Western countries to resettle Syrian refugees out of Lebanon. Since then, the IOM has assisted the German government by providing assistance to 5,773 Syrian refugees, including transport, medical screenings and cultural-orientation sessions. It will likely do the same for Syrian refugees heading to Canada.
On Sept. 10, 2013, more than 107 Syrian refugees bound for Germany were bused to the IOM's headquarters in Jnah, a suburb of Beirut. They came from all over Lebanon – the green pastures of the Bekaa Valley, the slums of Beirut and the hilly northern region. Everyone seemed excited at the prospect of starting over in a new country; some wondered if they would ever return.
There were 30 men, 40 women and some 37 children who had been through the rigorous resettlement selection process of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and approved by the German government as part of an initial group of 4,000 vulnerable refugees chosen for a two-year stay in the country. Together, they boarded three buses, arranged for by the IOM, which transported them to Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport.
The group included single women, destitute families, those suffering from serious medical conditions and in need of immediate treatment, and others with family already in Germany.
At the time, German Ambassador to Lebanon Christian Clages was on hand at the airport and spoke to reporters as refugees waited in queue to enter customs. He expressed hope that more European Union countries would follow Germany's example. One of the aims of Germany's program, he said, was to "follow in the spirit of burden sharing with Lebanon."
Back then, the Syrian refugee count in Lebanon was around 800,000. Today, nearly 1.2 million are registered, though the government believes the actual number is much higher.
From the airport, the first batch of refugees were flown to Hanover on a private charter flight. Accompanying them were IOM personnel and medical staff. Upon arrival, they were transferred to a reception centre in Friedland, where they underwent a "cultural program," according to the IOM. The refugees were admitted by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees' humanitarian admissions program.
Though their German residency, which refugees received shortly after arrival, was valid for two years, it came with the possibility of renewal depending on the situation on the ground in Syria.
In all, 25 such flights transported 4,000 over a 12-month period, longer than Mr. Trudeau's expected time frame with four times fewer the number of refugees.