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Complications in Turkey slow arrival of Syrians to Canada

Only 311 of the refugees slated to arrive in Canada by the end of this year are sponsored solely by the government.

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

The operation to resettle as many as 5,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey to Canada is being slowed by the additional "complexities" of the situation in that country, Canada's ambassador to Ankara said in an interview.

The situation in Turkey is different from both Jordan and Lebanon, the other countries from which Canada is accepting Syrian refugees, because the Turkish government and not the UN High Commissioner for Refugees registers and keeps track of refugees in the country. The sheer size of Turkey – as well as concerns about security in the southern regions where most of the Syrian refugees are registered – create additional complications.

The Liberal government plans to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada from the three countries by the end of February. The UNHCR office has been asked to provide a list of 10,000 potential candidates who are currently living in Jordan, while the number that will come from Lebanon remains "a bit of a moving target," according to a Canadian official there.

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Thousands of privately sponsored refugees, currently scattered around all three countries – and some already en route to Canada – will also help make up the 25,000 target.

John Holmes, Canada's ambassador to Ankara, told The Globe and Mail that the Turkish government last week submitted a list of 5,000 names that Turkey was suggesting for resettlement to Canada. The Canadian embassy will now hand the list to the International Organization for Migration, which will try to establish whether those 5,000 still reside at the addresses where they're registered by Turkish authorities, and whether those families are indeed willing to move to Canada.

Those verified by the IOM will then be given appointments for medical checks, as well as security screening by Canadian officials who are due to arrive soon in the Middle East. There's a concern that the Turkish list may be outdated, and that many of the young men, in particular, may have joined the massive refugee exodus to Europe in recent months.

Under the standards used by the UNHCR in Jordan, an absent family member is enough to disqualify the whole family from resettlement to Canada.

Also yet to be established is whether the names on the Turkish list meet the criteria for the Canadian program. In Jordan and Lebanon, the UNHCR has been prioritizing those worse off economically, as well as those in need of physical protection.

"We have very good co-operation from the Turkish government, but we're using lists they are providing, and we only just received, and we're working with the IOM to ensure we have a big enough pool to choose from," Mr. Holmes said in a telephone interview.

Since most of the refugees on the Turkish government's list registered in the south and southeast of Turkey – upward of 700 kilometres from Ankara and even further from Istanbul – that creates several additional challenges that don't exist in much smaller Jordan and Lebanon.

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"Our normal points of operation, Istanbul and Ankara, are not really viable," Mr. Holmes said. Among the additional challenges, he said, would be finding hospitals that are up to Health Canada standards – so that health checks can be carried out on refugees – as well as airports capable of handling the large planes the Canadian government will likely have to charter for the operation.

That puts the refugee airlift in Turkey several steps behind where it is in Jordan. In that country, the UNHCR has already screened thousands of refugees, verified their willingness to move to Canada, and given them appointment cards for final interviews with Canadian officials that start Dec. 5. Amman's Marka airport will be used as the hub for the airlift from Jordan. Immigration Minister John McCallum, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan were in Amman Sunday to visit locations and meet those involved in Canada's resettlement plan.

Mr. Holmes said Canada is in discussions with the Turkish government about using one of Gaziantep or Adana airports – the two main international terminals in the region – as a hub for the operation in Turkey. He said the Turkish list includes a mix of refugees residing in both urban areas and the official government-run camps of southern Turkey.

Security is an additional concern. Mr. Holmes said many of the Syrians on the list proposed by the Turkish government are registered in areas near the Syrian border, such as Gaziantep, Kilis, Mardin and Batman. These are all provinces that the Global Affairs Canada website currently advises Canadians to avoid – other than essential travel – "due to an unpredictable security situation."

Ankara has been accused of letting various Syrian rebel groups – including some of those that grew into the so-called Islamic State – use south Turkey as a de facto rear base as they fought against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The region has become even more tumultuous in recent months as fighting has resumed between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which seeks an independent Kurdish state.

Tensions spiked even further last week when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian warplane that Ankara claims violated its airspace. Turkey has deployed additional forces to the border region in the wake of the incident, while Russia – which supports Mr. Assad – has continued to bomb Turkish-backed rebels just across the frontier.

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Mr. Holmes said Turkey, which is currently playing host to some 2.2 million Syrian refugees, is very appreciative of the Canadian effort and the example it sets, even if taking 5,000 Syrians to Canada will barely ease the burden on the country.

"The Turks have told Canadian officials that they appreciate this as important, and that it sends a good signal to the whole international community."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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