The federal government has spent more than $32-million on flights to carry Syrian refugees from Jordan to Canada.
The massive effort to bring 25,000 of the refugees to Canada before Feb. 29 started in December with a Canadian Forces Airbus carrying the first group, but since then the airlift has relied on planes chartered from commercial airlines.
The trans-Atlantic trips, from Amman's Marka airport to either Montreal or Toronto, have cost an average of roughly $377,000 per flight, according to Public Services and Procurement Canada.
There were 88 flights that carried 23,098 Syrian refugees from Amman to Canada between Dec. 15 and Feb. 22, according to a tracker on the Immigration Department's website. That means the total cost of trans-Atlantic flights is now more than $32-million.
That works out to roughly $1,436 a person – a sum that is higher than fares available for tickets on ordinary commercial flights offered by some of the same airlines that are chartering flights for the government.
This week, for example, Royal Jordanian Airlines was offering fares of 563 Jordanian dinar to fly from Amman to Toronto, or just less than $1,100, and tickets from Amman to Montreal were selling for 681 dinar, or about $1,300. Air Canada's Amman-to-Montreal tickets were available for $1,004.
But it would probably be impossible to buy 23,000 commercial one-way tickets from Jordan to Canada in the rush three-month period of the airlift.
A spokesman for Public Services and Procurement Canada, Pierre-Alain Bujold, said in an e-mail that "given the urgency and scope" of the Syrian refugee resettlement effort, the government decided chartering flights was the safest way of bringing most of the 25,000 to Canada "as quickly as possible." The government could not count on commercial tickets given the logistical challenge, he added.
The sums for the Jordan-to-Canada flights don't represent the total costs to fly the refugees to Canada, because some of the refugees were shuttled to Amman from Beirut. When those amounts are added in, the average cost for every planeload that arrived in Canada was about $403,000, according to Public Services, which it pegged at about $1,500 a person. And there are also flights to relocate refugees within Canada.
The government estimates transportation will cost $94-million to $121-million – part of a budget for the Syrian refugee resettlement initiative (processing applications, travel, initial housing and settlement programs), which Immigration Minister John McCallum said Tuesday is "just under $700-million over five years."
Charter flight costs vary widely because they depend on many factors, such as where available planes are based, said Patricia Micheletti, president of CanCharter Aviation Inc. in Montreal. But she said she believes the $377,000 price for flights from Amman is reasonable. "I don't think this price is out of whack," she said.
Ottawa usually requires refugees to pay the cost of their transportation to Canada, but it has waived that for the Syrian refugees initiative – a practice that refugee advocates say should be extended to all resettled refugees.
The government has for months refused to provide the specific prices that Canada is paying for the flights from Amman to Canada, as well as the terms of the pricing, though it eventually provided an average cost for all flights to two different cities.
The Canadian government didn't charter the planes directly; it contracted the International Organization for Migration, a non-governmental agency that often deals with migration matters, to provide a series of services, including flights, under a contract that could be worth up to $63-million, according to the Public Services Department. The IOM charges Canada a 7-per-cent mark-up on the fees it pays the air carriers, a spokesman for Public Services said.
The IOM refused to respond to questions about the prices, referring inquiries to Ottawa.
But Mr. McCallum's Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship rebuffed that question in December, initially stating that the Syrian refugee program was covered by a national security exemption, and it would not say which airline would fly the refugees – though Mr. McCallum had already publicly stated that Royal Jordanian Airlines would be one of them. The department later referred the question to Public Services.
Public Services initially provided only the total maximum value of the IOM contract, insisting the pricing of the charter flights was confidential commercial information belonging to IOM that cannot be released. That is despite the government's own guidelines for access for information, which state "a third party cannot reasonably expect that the amounts to be paid out of public funds to the third party under a government contract would remain confidential."
Spokespersons for Public Services did, however, eventually provide the average-cost figures, but argued that they could not reveal the specific prices and terms because that would inhibit the government's ability to negotiate good prices for charter flights in the future.