Canada's effort to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees from the Middle East is the subject of intense scrutiny in the region, Canada's ambassador to Jordan said, with Western diplomats watching to see whether the operation is a success – and looking to see whether the model is worth replicating.
"This hasn't been done before, this type of operation. We're still establishing a modus operandi and, hopefully, we'll be establishing best practices for the rest of the world to be looking at," Bruno Saccomani, Canada's ambassador to Amman, said in an interview Tuesday. "I've met several of my counterparts here in the past few days and I can tell you there's enormous interest from them to come and visit the site [where final screening of refugees is being carried out] and see how we're doing it."
Mr. Saccomani said the question of when the first plane might depart for Canada "is a question I would love to answer" but that details were still being ironed out – despite the Liberal government's target of bringing 10,000 refugees to Canada by the end of the month. A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, which is helping organize the airlift, told a press conference in Geneva that it was targeting mid-December for the first flights.
Sources told The Globe and Mail that the IOM had contacted national carrier Royal Jordanian Airlines about chartering as many as six commercial planes for the operation, though no deal had yet been agreed.
A federal solicitation document posted Monday pegs Dec. 10 as the date when the first flights are planned to carry refugees from Jordan and Turkey to the Toronto and Montreal airports.
The document says those flights could continue until the end of March.
The 25,000 refugees will be drawn from Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, with the largest share expected to come from Jordan. The country's Marka military airport will serve as a hub for the regional effort, with refugees currently in Lebanon touching down here before they're put on flights to Canada.
"Definitely I'm aiming to support the government's policy to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by [the end of] December. These are my working orders," Mr. Saccomani said. "Right now, we're filling up the stocks of people that will be available to be airlifted."
That part of the effort involves Canadian officials and the IOM conducting final screening of names provided to it by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR, which manages the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and conducts home visits with refugees who live outside the camps, is in the midst of preparing a list of 11,000 names that it believes meet Canada's criteria of taking the neediest and most vulnerable from among the 633,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan.
Refugee families with children requiring medical care, as well as those in need of physical protection – such as gay, lesbian and transgender refugees – are also being prioritized by the UNHCR.
The UNHCR's office in Lebanon has also been asked to put forward a list of several thousands names for consideration. In Turkey, where the government, rather than the UNHCR, manages the refugee camps, the Turkish government has handed a list of 5,000 proposed names to the Canadian embassy in Ankara.
Syrian refugees sponsored by church groups and other private organizations will also be included in the 25,000 figure.
The operation in Turkey will be a rather separate affair, with Canadian officials and the IOM still examining the accuracy of the Turkish government list. Canada has inquired with Turkey about flying the refugees out of one of Gaziantep or Adana airports, the main international terminals in the south of the country, where most of the people on the Turkish list are registered.
Refugees flown out of Jordan's Marka airport will first undergo final screening at the nearby SOFEX military facility – used every two years for an international special-forces exhibition and weapons show dubbed the "counterterrorism Olympics" – that is being lent to Canada by the Jordanian army.
While the UNHCR's screening focuses on level of need, as well as whether the refugee families have the necessary documents to travel, the screening at SOFEX includes medical checks, biometric screening and background checks, all carried out by the IOM. Those with communicable diseases will be prevented from travelling to Canada, as will those who raise red flags with security officials.
Canadian security officials now in Amman will check the names proposed by the UNHCR against Interpol watch lists, as well as U.S. security databases. In a press release, the IOM said it was also asking all males to describe any military service they had done in Syria.
While having done military service will not disqualify refugees from resettlement (before the civil war started in 2011, all males were made to do two years' service in the Syrian army), the IOM said it was asking applicants to "explain the rank they served under and describe the type of unit."
The IOM said 288 people had been processed on Sunday and Monday at the SOFEX facility, and that it soon expected to be processing 500 people a day.
Andrew Harper, head of the Jordan office for the UNHCR, said in an interview that Canada has twice increased the number of names it has asked the agency – from 7,000 to 10,000 and now 11,000 – indicating that Ottawa wants a larger pool of people to choose from while still meeting its 25,000 target.
"I would do the same. In the end, what Canada is doing is quite a generous response, and so to meet a target you want to have as much flexibility as you can. You don't want to be forced into accepting only these people who have been provided to you. You want to be able to say this one does not meet our criteria, so let's move on to the second, third and fourth ones. We'll provide more cases than what Canada requires in order to give them the ability to make the choices."
Mr. Saccomani praised the co-operation Canada was receiving from the Jordanian government and military, and said the only complaint he'd heard from the Jordanian side was that they wished Canada could take more than 25,000.
With files from The Canadian Press