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Syrian refugees could be Canada-bound by 10 December

Canada focuses on logistics of bringing in 10,000 government-sponsored refugees before the end of December
A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo, stay under a shelter during a rainy day on 8 March 2014 at Uskudar in Istanbul (AFP)

TORONTO, Canada - Syrian refugees could be boarding chartered planes for Canada as soon as next Wednesday, as Canadian officials opened a registration centre in Amman on Sunday in hopes of speeding up their arrival.

The centre, operated jointly by the Canadian government, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the Danish Refugee Council and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), began registering Syrian refugees slated for resettlement in Canada on 29 November.

“We are planning for planes that can accommodate 350 passengers per charter flight,” IOM spokesperson Joel Millman told Middle East Eye in an email from Lebanon. “We do not yet know when our initial flight will depart. Soon, we (obviously) hope.”

Refugees are being bussed in to the Amman centre, which is housed on a former Jordanian military hangar, from other parts of the country, an IOM press release said.

Millman confirmed to MEE that refugees currently in Lebanon would be transferred to Jordan before taking flights to Canada. The details of how that will happen still need to be worked out, he said.

Syrian refugees currently in Turkey will be able to fly to Canada directly without transitioning in another country, he said, adding that 100 people were processed the first day the centre was operational.

IOM hopes to be able to process 500 people daily by later this week, Millman said.

Logistics have been a major concern surrounding the Canadian government’s plan to bring in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had promised to bring 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees to Canada before the end of 2015. Late last month, the Liberal government pushed that deadline back to the end of February in order to adequately screen the incoming refugees, officials said.

But that number could be even higher: Canada’s Immigration Minister John McCallum said this week that after consulting with the provinces, between 35,000-50,000 Syrian refugees could realistically be resettled in Canada by the end of next year.

“That’s not yet in the official plan, but based on the discussions we’ve been having, it’s likely to be in that order,” McCallum said during a briefing with reporters.

Charter flights for refugees

On Monday, the government issued an official tender looking for Canadian airlines that could provide chartered aircrafts with at least 200 seats each to fly between Adana and Gaziantep in Turkey, Amman, and Toronto’s Pearson Airport and Trudeau Airport in Montreal.

The government posted another tender for Canadian airlines that would be able to provide charter flights between Pearson and Trudeau airports and other destinations in Canada, or provide discounts on tickets on commercial flights inside Canada.

But those chartered planes may not even be necessary, as the Jordanian authorities reportedly offered to lease airplanes to Canada to transport the refugees.

The bulk of the Syrian refugees coming to Canada, about 16,000 people, are expected to be resettled in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Pearson Airport is preparing a seldom-used terminal to process the new arrivals, it confirmed on Twitter.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada requires air transportation to transport 10,000 refugees in December alone between the Middle East and Canada and to the refugees’ assigned Canadian communities, the government’s tender reads.

Another 15,000 refugees are then expected to arrive in “early 2016” - though specific dates are not outlined.

“First day of transportation is planned to be 10 December 2015. Transportation is anticipated to be required until 29 February 2016, but may be required later,” the notice states.

Last week, the Canadian government also pledged to provide $100 million to UNHCR to aid Syrian refugees in the region.

“When we add up all the numbers for the communities and their ability to bing them in, we end up with more than 25,000 - that’s good news and it means that Canadians are really prepared to welcome a lot of refugees,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, the minister of international development, during a news conference to announce the funding.

“It won’t stop after the 25,000 - we will continue to bring refugees in regularly as we always have,” Bibeau said. “I think Canadians are proud of the fact that we are making a significant effort in the midst of such a significant conflict.”

The Globe and Mail reported this week that Syrian refugees are reluctant to come to Canada immediately, preferring instead to stay closer to home in hopes of returning to Syria.

Only about 6.3 percent of the refugees contacted by UNHCR in November expressed interest in coming to Canada, government numbers reportedly showed, according to the newspaper.

But McCallum said the interest is there.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, having seen many of these refugee applicants over there, spoken to a few through an interpreter, that there’s a huge enthusiasm to come to Canada. It’s just a question of the logistics of connecting us to them,” he said.

Meanwhile, local groups are working at a feverish pace across Canada to make sure that the refugees have everything they will need upon their arrival.

Clothing, including winter hats, scarves and gloves, furniture and other household items are being collected and sorted across the country and welcome parties are being organised at the airports in Montreal and Toronto.