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Opinion Congratulations - and some questions - for Canada’s ministers on our refugee policy

Ron Atkey teaches national security law at Osgoode Law School. As minister of employment and immigration, he oversaw the Indochinese refugee program in 1979-1980, when Canada welcomed 60,000 Vietnamese people over 18 months.

Congratulations to Immigration Minister John McCallum, Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale and their cabinet colleagues on their refugee strategy. A return to cabinet government is indeed welcome and the political expertise of these two ministers has obviously been a factor.

I am jumping for joy that the current refugee movement from Syria now stands a good chance for success to join other great Canadian refugee efforts since the Second World War.

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The differences from the campaign promise and the plans announced this week are not insignificant:

· Dec. 31, 2015, for 25,000 refugees is no longer a hard target.

· The 25,000 will now include both government-sponsored refugees (GAR) and privately sponsored refugees (PSR) in the pipeline.

· The initial 10,000 by Dec. 31, 2015, will be 80 per cent PSR.

· The balance of the 25,000 will be a combination of PSR and GAR by the end of February, 2016.

· An additional 10,000 GAR and an unknown number of PSR will be brought to Canada before the end of 2016.

· The focus for GAR will be on the most vulnerable: families with children or single mothers with children, to the exclusion of single men.

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The announcement also contained important clarifications:

1. Security screening, criminality checks and health clearances will be done at source in in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey before refugees arrive in Canada.

2. Approved refugees will arrive in Canada with permanent-resident status and not on a minister's permit.

3. Transportation arrangements by chartered air carrier seem to be well in hand, with most flights from an Amman airport arriving in Toronto or Montreal with connecting flights in some cases to Calgary and Vancouver. Transportation loans have been eliminated.

4. The entire program has been costed at up to $678-million over six years.

5. Resettlement arrangements with provincial governments across Canada are continuing apace, with a significant involvement of faith-based groups, non-governmental organizations, municipalities and neighbourhood groups

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Yes, there are continuing uncertainties and omissions. Will the exclusion of single men continue beyond the initial wave and become a permanent part of Canadian refugee policy?

What happens to the Syrian refugee movement after the end of 2016? What happens if the Canadian appetite for PSRs exceeds government expectations (as happened in 1979-1980)?

These issues will be dealt with in the fullness of time as the program rolls out.

But what is important is that the tone has changed. The government has listened to public concerns – some legitimate, some not – and has come up with workable and realistic changes to the initial Liberal promise on Syrian refugees made in the heat of the campaign. This is to be commended.

What is also encouraging is the response of the new Opposition critics to the recent announcement. Immigration critic Michelle Rempel and Public Safety critic Erin O'Toole both distinguished themselves by generally supporting these changes and offering assistance to make the program work.

This refugee movement will need the support of all Canadians through their MPs if it is to succeed in making a significant contribution to alleviating the suffering among the millions fleeing war-torn Syria.

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The government has now set the table. There is much still to be done by Canadians throughout the country.

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