EDMONTON - Canada plans to resettle up to 1,300 refugees from war-torn Syria by the end of next year, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced Wednesday.
The federal government will immediately take in 200 people deemed at high risk by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The remaining 1,100 are to be brought in via private sponsorship organizations by the end of next year.
"I've met with hundreds of Canadians of Syrian origin over the past year and have heard their anxiety and their desire to help with those facing danger and have had to flee their homes," Kenney said at a downtown Edmonton centre that assists new immigrants.
"Canada is meeting its commitment to the UN and making an important contribution to the co-ordinated global effort to help Syrian refugees."
An estimated two million people have fled their homes in Syria during the civil war. Kenney said the government is committed to the UN's goal of finding a long-term political solution to the fighting.
"You cannot solve a refugee crisis involving millions of people by just seeking to airlift them to a handful of developed countries," said Kenney.
"That is completely unrealistic and, in fact, is not a long-term solution."
The 200 high-risk spaces are for people who are in immediate danger in refugee camps, including women facing sexual violence, children, gay men and religious minorities, said Kenney.
"We're looking with the UN at those people who have faced, if you will, secondary persecution. They fled Syria because of the war and now they're facing danger in some of the camps," said Kenney.
"The UN frankly just needs to get them out and those are the people we are focusing on."
The 1,100 privately sponsored spaces are above the existing cap in place for that program and will not bump any other applicants.
"The choice I am announcing today is to help Syrians. This is not a choice against other refugees. We continue to receive people from Bhutan, from Nepal, from East Africa and from elsewhere."
Federal NDP immigration critic Jinny Sims called the announcement a good first step but too long in coming. The Syrian-Canadian community, among others, has been calling for such action from the government.
"It's a beginning," said Sims.
"We're glad he (Kenney) is listening to the Syrian community, the international community and the NDP because, as a party, we've been pressing for this for a very long time," said Sims.
"I think the minister felt some pressure, and I think that's why he has taken action."
Sims said Kenney still needs to step up family reunification.
The minister said his department is expediting applications for Canadians with family members in Syria.
"Almost all of the family-class applications that were in our system have already been finalized," he said.
The government will also provide $2.3 million over two years to strengthen the UN's global resettlement capacity, including $1 million to support deployment of five specialists to assist with resettling displaced Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.
Canada is also resettling up to 5,000 refugees from Turkey by 2018. They are mainly Iraqis and Iranians. The hope is that the move will free up space for Syrians fleeing to Turkey.
Since January 2012, Canada has pledged $158.5 million in aid for Syria and the surrounding region.