Canadian immigration responses to the Syrian crisis - backgrounder


The conflict in Syria has led to millions of people being displaced, both within Syria and in the neighbouring countries. Despite the scale of the crisis, Canada has done extremely little in terms of immigration responses. The Canadian Council for Refugees and the Syrian Canadian Council are calling for Canada to do more to offer a safe haven for some of the many Syrians uprooted by the conflict.

On September 30, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees appealed to the international community to do more to relieve the burden on Syria’s neighbours, “warning that the immense number of Syrian refugees fleeing the war is threatening those countries’ social and economic fabric.”

Massive forced displacement of Syrians requires international solidarity

Almost one-third of Syria’s pre-conflict population is uprooted. The overwhelming majority (97%) of those who have fled the country are in 5 neighbouring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt). There are 2.1 million registered Syrian refugees, and many others who are not yet registered. Among those fleeing are large numbers of Palestinians previously residing in Syria.

Many more people are expected to flee Syria in the coming months.

  • ¾ million in Lebanon (refugees have added 21% to the pre-conflict population)
  • ½ million in Jordan (refugees now 10% of population)
  • Nearly ½ million in Turkey


The majority of the refugees are not in camps but finding their own accommodation or staying in private homes. Some towns in the region now have as many refugees as locals.

The huge influx of new residents is causing enormous strain on the local systems. The schools are overflowing – and many Syrian children are not in school. Health services are stretched beyond  capacity. The water supply is insufficient.

Pressures on housing as a result of the larger population have led to huge increases in rents, affecting both refugees and locals. In Jordan rental rates in some areas have increased 3 or 4 fold.

Economically, individuals, communities and governments are straining to cope, in the context of shrinking economies as a result of the crisis in Syria.

“International solidarity must also include burden-sharing in hosting the refugees, such as resettlement and other forms of providing protection to Syrians in third countries. Making available opportunities for family reunification is another key measure which I encourage States to consider.”
António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees


Canada’s response so far

Canada has promised significant financial contributions: $203.5 million since January 2012, for international humanitarian assistance efforts in Syria and neighbouring countries, and $110 million to support development projects in Jordan and Lebanon.

The immigration response, however, has been minimal.

  • The government announced in July 2013 a commitment to resettle 1,300 Syria refugees by the end of 2014. Of this number only 200 places were committed on behalf of the government (Government-Assisted Refugees). The remaining 1,100 places were committed on behalf of the private sector (privately sponsored refugees) – in other words, on behalf of voluntary efforts by Canadians! The organizations currently involved in refugee sponsorship were not consulted before this promise was made. Given the delays and barriers in the private sponsorship program, it is not expected that many privately sponsored Syrian refugees will arrive by end 2014.
  • The government has not officially declared that people will not be deported to Syria. Instead there is an internal measure, an “administrative deferral of removals”, which means that people will not be sent back to Syria. This has not been made public. There are no measures to regularize, even on a temporary basis, the status of Syrians in Canada.
  • Fewer than 400 Syrians made a refugee claim in Canada in the 18 months from January 2012 to June 2013.
  • Only 9 Syrians were resettled by the government to Canada in the first eight months of 2013.


Given the scale of the crisis, Canada needs to do more, particularly for the most vulnerable, those with family in Canada and those already in Canada.

Family reunification

CCR recommends that Canada:

Introduce flexible provisions to allow family members of Canadian citizens, permanent residents and accepted refugees to come to Canada, at least on a temporary basis.

  • It makes sense for Canada to open its doors to Syrians with family connections, since many Syrian Canadians are deeply anxious about family members, and having family here makes it is easier to settle.
  • Temporary visas are much quicker to process. Some family members may not want to live permanently in Canada and will want to return to Syria once the conflict is resolved. On the other hand, if return is not feasible, Canada can and should allow them to apply for permanent residence.
  • Family reunification measures can respond to family members who are still in Syria (unlike refugee resettlement, which only applies to people outside Syria).
  • Family members should be provided with basic rights (to work, to study, access to health care).


Brazil has recently announced that it will issue special humanitarian visas for Syrians who wish to seek refuge in Brazil. Brazil’s embassies in countries neighbouring Syria will issue travel visas for people wanting to go there. They will then present an asylum claim on arrival in Brazil. The special humanitarian visas will also be provided to family members living in countries neighbouring Syria.


Private sponsorship

CCR recommends that Canada:

Address the many barriers to private sponsorship of Syrian refugees, including the long processing delays and the ban on sponsoring refugees out of Turkey.

  • Processing times for privately sponsored refugees are unacceptably long at many visa offices, including those in the region around Syria.


Visa office

Processing times in months

Amman – Jordan


Ankara – Turkey


Beirut – Lebanon


Cairo – Egypt


Last quarterly update: July 26, 2013  

Source: CIC


  • There are additional wait times even before an application gets to the visa office. Refugee sponsorship applications must first be approved at the Case Processing Office in Winnipeg (CPOW), which takes several months for an application by a Sponsorship Agreement Holder and 11 months for a Group of Five. Many sponsors find it takes up to 6 months to get all the paperwork ready to submit an application. In total, from the time a decision is taken to sponsor a Syrian refugee, we can therefore expect to wait a minimum of 2 and a half years before the refugee arrives in Canada.

These processing delays are unacceptable for any refugees – the solution is not to give priority to Syrians at expense of other refugees who have been waiting. The processing times need to be dramatically reduced for all refugees, so that Canada’s resettlement program functions to protect refugees.

  • For several years, Canada has barred Sponsorship Agreement Holders from sponsoring refugees out of Turkey. This means that they cannot sponsor Syrians in Turkey.
  • Recently imposed rules require that refugees sponsored by Groups of Five have been determined to be a refugee by UNHCR or a State. Most Syrian refugees have not had an individual determination (this is understandably not a priority given the urgency just to respond to basic needs). Therefore Groups of Five cannot for the most part sponsor Syrians.
  • Cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program mean that privately sponsored refugees do not have coverage for some medical expenses, such as expensive medications or prosthetics. Some groups therefore hesitate to sponsor because of the risks of unanticipated expenses.

Government Resettlement

CCR recommends that Canada:

Provide more Government Assisted Refugee spaces when the UNHCR calls for them.

  • Canada has so far committed only 200 spaces to end 2014. UNHCR is not recommending mass resettlement at this stage, largely because it takes up a lot of resources – Canada requires UNHCR to do a lot of paperwork and security and medical screenings when it refers a refugee for resettlement. UNHCR will probably be looking for many more resettlement spaces in the future, and in the meantime, they see a need for resettlement for particularly vulnerable refugees.
  • The spaces given to Syrians should not be at the expense of other refugees, who also need resettlement. Canada fell well short of its target for Government-Assisted Refugees in 2012: these unused spaces should be carried forward.

Germany has committed to taking 5,000 Syrian refugees from Lebanon to Germany, where they will receive two-year residence permits including access to health and educational services and the right to work. Because this is an “evacuation” program, rather than permanent resettlement, processing can be done quickly. A first group of 107 vulnerable refugees arrived in September. 

In the first eight months of 2013, only 9 Syrian Government Assisted Refugees arrived in Canada.


Deportations from Canada to Syria

CCR recommends that Canada:

Formally declare a moratorium on removals to Syria.

According to the Regulations, the Minister of Public Safety can impose a stay on removal orders ( in other words, postpone deportations) to a country where the circumstances “pose a generalized risk to the entire civilian population” as a result of an armed conflict (Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations, 230. (1)).

No such stay has been imposed on removals to Syria. The Canada Border Services Agency has used an informal, internal measure, known as an Administrative Deferral of Removals, imposed in March 2012. This measure is not public.

Special immigration measures for Syrians currently in Canada

CCR recommends that Canada:

Introduce special immigration measures for Syrians currently in Canada, to allow them to extend their stay, similar to provisions for Haitians after the earthquake (including access to a work permit, to Interim Federal Health coverage and to schooling for children).

  • Syrians in Canada who cannot return home need special measures to ensure they have access to basic rights. There are precedents for such measures, for example, in response to the earthquake in Haiti, or the thousands of Chinese students in Canada at the time of the Tiananmen Square events.
  • If the situation in Syria does not resolve itself soon, Syrians in Canada on a temporary basis should be given access to permanent residence. (Chinese students affected by Tiananmen Square were invited to apply for residence through the Deferred Removal Order Class in the 1990s).

In September 2013, Sweden announced that it would grant permanent residence to all Syrians seeking asylum in the country. Sweden has received about 14,700 asylum seekers from Syria since 2012.


Facilitating temporary visas

CCR recommends that Canada:

Allow people who meet all the conditions of a temporary visa (e.g. students, parents or grandparents on supervisas) to come to Canada.

  • Some applicants for student visas or supervisas are being refused simply because the crisis in Syria makes officials question their willingness to return to Syria. They should be allowed to come. If the conflict continues in Syria and they cannot return home, it would be no more than a modest gesture on Canada’s part to allow them to remain permanently in Canada.