George Petrolekas has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.
When we speak of Syrian refugees coming to Canada, there are actually three separate parts of that process: identifying, moving and resettling. The first is the initial approval of who the government will accept as refugees to this country. That is well in process, with apparently 10,000 people identified so far. In essence, this is the establishment of a list.
The second, and the most difficult, is the movement of refugees to Canada – and the Canadian military will be crucial to the success or failure of that task. John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, has indicated that a variety of methods are being considered. Ships, military planes and civilian aircraft – seems simple, but each have their complications.
For this important element to go smoothly, no other government department has the ability to project capability overseas like the Canadian Armed Forces.
Unless the government foresees somehow contracting what are in many cases dubious local authorities, only the Canadian Forces has the airplanes and vehicles to accomplish that far away from Canada. And only the CF has the communications network, the command and control capability, and the means to provide security far offshore.
If the refugees are coming directly from UN-run camps in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, they are still some distance away from airports that civilian airlines will risk landing in, or port facilities where they might board ships.
That will require on-the-ground military reception of the people identified, security for those who double-check that the individuals are in fact those who have been identified, and then either ground or air transport from these locations to safer airports where civilian aircraft can land, or ships can dock.
Clearly this phase will depend greatly on the Army and the Royal Canadian Air Force, not so much on the Navy. It does point out, however, how many more options the government would have at its disposal had Canada possessed two of the French Mistral-type vessels the last government was beginning to look at. Those ships, able to embark 4,000 people at a time, would have meant that transport, health checks, security checks and acclimatization could have been done completely within the governments resources.
On arrival, and until incoming refugees are paired with locations where they will ultimately reside, they will have to be housed, clothed and fed. It's unlikely that many Syrians have seen snow, ice or wintery cold, so everyone will need to be given clothing suitable for living in this country. And while that is going on, as Minister McCallum indicated, health checks, and, of course, security checks will need to be done.
All this can only be done in a series of transient facilities, likely spread across the country. But once again, only the military has a somewhat ready supply of infrastructure that could serve as lodgings, let alone the administrative expertise to rapidly initiate supporting capabilities like field kitchens and field hospitals. The military has done that frequently: As most Canadians will remember a spectrum of aid being delivered to Haiti and to the Philippines in a matter of days, certainly the military can do it in the safety and confines of our own country. But military resources alone will not be enough.
The final phase is indeed a whole of nation, whole of government affair. Apartments and homes will need to be found, and people moved from transient facilities to places where they will eventually reside. Every province, many municipalities and the federal government will have important roles to play. This final phase is perhaps the most time-consuming.
While the government is earnestly trying to meet its promise of 25,000 in Canada before Jan. 1 and can conceivably do so depending on the cost and effort is willing to devote, final destination settlement will likely take a little longer.