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Syrian refugee plan ‘can be done,’ says Canadian ambassador in Lebanon

Syrian refugees line up to receive aid for the winter from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, on Nov. 18, 2015.

OMAR IBRAHIM/REUTERS

Three months, three countries, 25,000 Syrian refugees: The ambitious numbers underlying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's resettlement plan for refugees do not strike Canadian Ambassador to Lebanon Michelle Cameron as unattainable.

On the contrary, "with the teams we have in place and the scalability of the operation, I am confident it can be done," Ms. Cameron said, during a sit-down interview with The Globe and Mail at the Canadian embassy in Beirut.

The details of the plan have come under close scrutiny since they were announced Tuesday, with the criteria adopted to filter Syrian refugees – in particular reports that single men were being excluded over security concerns – coming under fire.

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But Ms. Cameron dismissed these reports as misunderstandings. Single men "are not automatically excluded," she said, but the aim to resettle the most vulnerable refugees often weeds them out. "You can imagine that when you have a certain number of places … if you are looking to take the most vulnerable refugees, they wouldn't necessarily bubble up to the top."

She acknowledged that Canada's criteria for resettlement has changed slightly since the plan was announced to reflect the desperate circumstances of Syrian refugees. "The conversation has changed," she said. "Now, this is a humanitarian operation."

While previously the criteria assessed how successfully a refugee could integrate in Canada, those considerations have been relaxed somewhat. "Language requirement was a measure of that, but now we are saying, we can have language classes."

The process itself enlists the support of other organizations. Once the UHNCR recommends cases from the field, the Canadian embassy in Beirut carries out health and security checks as well as an interview to assess vulnerability relative to other refugees. The Danish Refugee Council will likely support refugees in completing paperwork and the International Organization for Migration will assist in transporting them to the airport when it's time to leave. But before this process can even begin, refugees themselves have to agree to be resettled. It is not uncommon for Syrian refugees, many of whom still carry the hope of returning home, to choose to stay.

This, among other vagaries in the selection process, is part of the reason why Ms. Cameron is tentative about specifying how many refugees will come from host countries Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. "It's a bit of a moving target, but for me that's the ideal scenario, that's not negative, we're flexible."

Being held accountable for meeting a fixed refugee quota would not take into account the variations in needs and desires among Syrian refugees in each country, she added.

"What we've really pushed for from each of the three countries was not to put us into a box, in the sense that as the process is happening there's going to be different logistical challenges, and one can imagine, in each country there's going to be different needs and vulnerabilities," she said.

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Picking 10,000 refugees before Dec. 31 is not the issue for the Canadian embassy in Beirut; the mission has been processing refugee files for years with several thousand waiting in the inventory and more on the way from the UN refugee agency. "It's not about us picking a date and saying let's hurry up and get there. That's not the limiting factor."

It's the process itself – finding the most vulnerable refugees, ensuring they actually want to leave, going through myriads of checks, and dealing with the paperwork from each host country to grant the exit visas – that takes time.

To meet the respective December and February deadlines, Ms. Cameron said, the embassy has brought in approximately 120 additional staff. "It seems like accelerated processing when you're looking at the numbers and timelines to get there, but the process is the same," she said. "We're still doing interviews, we are still doing health checks, we're still taking the time to do security screenings."

She said the security checks are "robust," but would not provide details. "We work with our law-enforcement partners and our intelligence partners in the government of Canada and their networks around the world," she explained. "This isn't the first time we're doing this. We have a well-oiled logistical machine."

Chartered flights have not yet been arranged to transport refugees to Canada. Until now, the embassy has found booking refugees onto commercial carriers to be more cost-effective. "I don't necessarily have 300 who are waiting to get on a plane … so when it becomes more efficient… I am sure we will."

With the holiday season approaching, she predicts chartered flights might become necessary by mid-December. "But that can be pushed up if all the logistics line up nicely."

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