Liberal Government Litmus Test on Immigration

A litmus test for the newly elected Liberal government’s policy on immigration will be how the Syrian refugee crisis is dealt with. The promise to accommodate 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada before the end of the year will be a challenging one to uphold, to say the least. Minister McCallum and CIC will have to work out both the logistics and the funding. In other words, they will have to work out where to spend the money in a very short time horizon while dealing with security issues like former Islamic State terrorists slipping into Canada as refugees from Syria.

European Migrant Crisis By Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

by Maximillan Dorrbecker / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The groundwork has to focus on places like Turkey, where many Syrian refugees end up and where, as we have covered previously, their status as refugees is not clear. That means that Canadian immigration authorities will have to work closely with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Turkey to be able to identify and classify Syrians who have fled from their country’s civil war as refugees. As former diplomat Scott Heatherington stated in a recent interview, this means:

  • Medical tests to screen for infectious diseases.
  • Immigration and UNHCR personnel on the ground in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon will have to ensure that vulnerable refugees and not IS fighters are selected.
  • Deal with the sheer numbers of Syrian refugees in these neighbouring countries. It is estimated that they number around 4 million.
  • Assign those selected a UNHCR refugee number, and handle other legalities, so they may enter Canada legally as refugees.
  • Transport the 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada.

As important as selecting and transporting the refugees, accommodating such large numbers of people when they arrive in Canada is as large a challenge. As Heatherington states, Canada must:

  • Mobilize military bases to initially accommodate the refugees. Other alternatives may have to be found, like schools and community centres.
  • Coordinate with Provincial governments and NGOs or other private groups to find more permanent accommodations for the refugees.
  • Ensure that adequate health coverage is in place. This has been a controversial issue since the Conservatives cut back on healthcare available to refugees who had not yet been screened. The government was defeated in court last year and the Liberals have stated they will drop the Conservative government’s appeal of the court decision.
  • This means coordinating various government ministries and departments, like:
  • Defence
  • Citizenship and Immigration
  • Public Safety
  • Employment
  • Finance
  • Treasury Board.

These last two departments are key because the funding will have to be in place. In other words, this will be like a small war effort on the part of Canada, and it will have to be budgeted immediately, before the government has had a chance to put together its own broader budget.

But it doesn’t stop there. Private groups have been formed to bring in even more Syrian refugees and even if they do provide free legal and other advice to those refugees they will be sponsoring, this will place a further strain on government resources. Places like the University of Ottawa’s Refugee Hub, for example, provide a community where legal expertise and advice is combined with support for refugee initiatives. Faculty Director Jennifer Bond who leads the Refugee Hub, along with Director Emily Bates, has expressed optimism that the challenges Canada will face in bringing more than 25,000 Syrian refugees can be overcome.

Already immigration advocates have suggested CIC needs to go much further than merely admit the 25,000 Syrian refugees. Among the demands being made are the following:

  • Increase Provincial Nominee Program appointees instead of relying almost exclusively on Express Entry as the main portal to obtaining permanent residence in Canada. This means allowing lower-skilled temporary workers to achieve permanent residence.
  • Dramatically increase family based immigration by allowing large numbers of parents and grandparents of new Canadians and/or permanent residents to come to Canada. This would provide a significant strain on provincial healthcare budgets.
  • Only revoke the citizenship of those convicted of terrorism within Canada, rather than abroad. It is unclear how strongly people feel about the previous government’s attempts to make Canadian citizenship far more conditional than it had been previously. By suggesting that those convicted of murder and rape should also be stripped of their Canadian citizenship, as long as they have dual citizenship, the Conservatives threw into question what it means to be a Canadian. Even if it applies to a very small percentage of Canadians – like members of the Toronto 18 – it is clearly a hot-button issue. Some have called this washing our hands of our own terrorists. For the record, the UK does not require dual citizenship to revoke citizenship. And Australia has similar legislation on the books. 

As promised in the Liberal Party’s New Plan for Canadian Immigration and Economic Opportunity, released this past September, the new government is planning a substantial overhaul of immigration policy. It includes:

  • Fully restoring the Interim Federal Health Program which would bring back health coverage for refugees and other new arrivals in Canada.
  • Through an Expert Human Rights Panel, do a review of designated countries of origin, with what seems to be a view to cutting back on those “safe” countries to which refugee applicants are currently often sent back to. This despite claims of torture and abuse prevailing in those countries.
  • Restoring the maximum age of dependents to 22 years.
  • Granting immediate permanent residence to new spouses entering Canada.
  • Repeal the parts of bill C-24 that prevent some workers – presumably lower-skilled temporary workers – from becoming permanent residents.
  • Restore the residence time credit for international students and other temporary workers.
  • Eliminate the $1,000 LMIA fee for families seeking caregivers for members of their families with disabilities.
  • Roll back visa restrictions for visitors from Mexico.
  • Reform the remittance industry by promising to lower fees imposed on Canadian residents sending money to family members.
  • Reform the caregiver industry by regulating companies that provide such services.

This is quite the laundry list of promises and the days and months ahead will determine how quickly and how completely the government can accomplish their promises when it comes to immigration rules and policy in Canada. We’ll start with how they handle the Syrian refugee crisis.


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