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UN asks Ottawa to open its doors for refugees of Syria's brutal civil war

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OTTAWA - The United Nations refugee agency is knocking on Canada's door in search of countries willing to welcome some of the 100,000 people displaced by the Syrian civil war.

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees met with federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander on Wednesday as part of a tour that includes Europe and the United States.

Antonio Guterres said Thursday he hoped he had made some progress with Alexander.

"We hope that there will be, at the right moment, a positive response," he said.

Guterres also met with NDP MP Paul Dewar, who acknowledged the high commissioner's concerns.

"He said he came raise the issue with Canada because he thinks we can do more."

Dewar said he believes Canada could accommodate 5,000 of the 100,000 Syrians who are expected to flee the Middle East.

The Canadian government has already agreed to accept 1,300 Syrian refugees who fled the Middle Eastern conflict, but Ottawa remains far from meeting that goal.

Alexander's office said the federal government is trying to reach the target.

"We are committed to resettling 1,300 Syrians by the end of 2014, with 1,100 places allocated to the private sponsorship of refugees," Codie Taylor, Alexander's communications director, said in an email.

"We have started to resettle the most vulnerable Syrians and are actively working to meet our existing commitments."

Guterres said much more needs to be done to help ease the massive burden on Syria's neighbours, including Lebanon.

He says Syrians now make up more than one-quarter of the population in Lebanon, where more than one million Syrians are registered with the UN refugee agency.

Lebanon's infrastructures have failed to keep up with the influx of Syrians, leading to overcrowded schools and hospitals, he noted.

The Syrian Canadian Council insists none of the 1,300 refugees are in Canada yet, noting that 200 refugees sponsored by the federal government have still not made it across the ocean.

The group says private sponsorship is almost impossible.

"The obstacles are enormous," group spokesman Faisal Alazem said in a telephone interview. The delays are too long and the financial requirements too high, he added.

"We hope Antonio Guterres...will really push the government to make a political decision to accelerate the process."

However, he admitted he is not optimistic. His organization has asked in vain to meet with Alexander. Setting up a meeting with the previous minister, Jason Kenney, took two years and produced nothing, he added.

A spokesman for Action Refugies, a Montreal-based support group, said it would like to see the federal government respond to Guterres.

"The number of 5,000 doesn't seem illogical given that the UNHCR says the (crisis) is the biggest they've seen," said Paul Clarke, the group's director.

But he's no more optimistic than Alazem.

"I'd be happy but surprised" to see Canada open its doors, especially considering the problems encountered in bringing in the 1,300 people already targeted, Clarke said in a telephone interview.

Meanwhile, Guterres said the burden must be shared in what he called an emergency situation.

"We need the international community to demonstrate to (Syria's neighbours) that they have support," he said, noting the "giant" Syrian presence in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

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