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Operation Syrian Refugees : Fifth anniversary

November 2020 marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of Operation Syrian Refugee, Canada’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Private sponsors, non-governmental organizations and provincial, territorial and municipal governments worked together to welcome more than 25,000 Syrian refugees over the span of 100 days from November 2015 to February 2016.

From November 2015 to November 2020, Canada has resettled 44,615 Syrian refugees, including 18,925 privately sponsored refugees

What were some of the key lessons learned from the Syrian refugee resettlement initiative?

  • Information-sharing with stakeholders

A general profile of the Syrian refugees Canada expected to resettle was shared with stakeholders at the outset of this initiative. In retrospect, the government-assisted refugees Canada resettled had higher than anticipated needs, but that information was not available until the refugees were interviewed and began arriving in Canada.

Refugees experienced trauma that often required specialized care. It is important that communication with service provider organizations and sponsors continues to ensure that refugees are able to access the care and services they need to help them integrate. The department is continuing to look at ways to provide more timely information to stakeholders regarding refugees, from all populations, who are being resettled to Canada.

IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) is working to develop additional ways to communicate with refugees, sponsors and partners throughout the process.

  • Partnerships and teamwork

Both internationally and domestically, partners played a crucial role in the success of this initiative. Foreign governments, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, provinces and territories, private sponsors, service providers, other departments within the Government of Canada and Canadians writ large all had and continue to have a significant role in the success of the Syrian resettlement initiative.

  • Public support

Canadians from coast to coast have helped Syrian refugees. Through sponsorships and by volunteering in their community, people across Canada have supported the Syrian resettlement initiative and are helping many Syrians integrate into their communities.

Public interest in privately sponsoring refugees and volunteering with settlement organizations continues across Canada. 

  • Operational flexibility and innovative approaches to processing

During the Syrian resettlement initiative, the creation of temporary operations centres were an innovative approach to processing the applicants as efficiently as possible. Canada was able to establish these centres thanks to the assistance of the governments in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and partners in the region such as the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration. The ability to repeat this kind of processing in other countries is contingent on the co-operation of those local governments. The ability to share work electronically throughout the department’s network of missions facilitated teamwork and allowed some of the work to be completed at other sites.

Completing steps in the immigration process such as interviews and medical and security screening concurrently enabled the government to complete the processing of more than 25,000 Syrian refugees in roughly 100 days. This required special measures including the reassignment of staff from other departments.

Where feasible, such measures can speed up processing, but it requires significant additional resources both in terms of funding and human resources. This model could be considered in the event of future extraordinary resettlement initiatives.

  • Importance of giving refugees time to say goodbye and pre-arrival orientation

Refugees already had to flee their homes, leaving most of what they held dear behind. Travel to Canada also means saying goodbye to family, friends and homeland.

We learned that people needed time to say their farewells. After February 2016, Syrian refugees approved for resettlement generally travelled 4 to 8 weeks following a positive decision on their case. This provided them with sufficient time to conclude their affairs overseas, to say their good-byes and to receive the Canada Orientation Abroad which provided some initial orientation about life in Canada.

These considerations continue for refugees that Canada is resettling.