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A Syrian refugee woman wearing a black headscarf and a purple winter coat hugs her crying baby after arriving on a raft on the Greek island of Lesbos.

A Syrian refugee hugs her crying baby after arriving on a raft on the Greek island of Lesbos, October 27, 2015.
Photo Credit: Giorgos Moutafis / Reuters

Massive Syrian refugee airlift would strain Canada’s diplomatic and military resources

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The massive operation required to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada until the end of the year, as promised by Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau, will require the mobilization of the country’s full diplomatic and military resources, experts warn.

“It’s actually a very big promise that I believe is going to be very difficult to meet,” said Kyle Matthews, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, in an interview with Radio Canada International. “The reality is the government will only be taking power on the 4th of November and they’ll just under two months to identify 25,000 refugees.”

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Matthews, who is a former high ranking official with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), says the Canadian civil service will be stretched to the limit as it tries to mobilize enough staff to travel to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to vet potential candidates for relocation to Canada.

Children climb on a fence as migrants queue to cross the border into Spielfeld in Austria from the village of Sentilj, Slovenia, October 28, 2015.

Children climb on a fence as migrants queue to cross the border into Spielfeld in Austria from the village of Sentilj, Slovenia, October 28, 2015. © Srdjan Zivulovic / Reuters

Identifying candidates for resettlement

Matthews says the UNHCR is expected to prepare a list of most vulnerable refugees – people who have health problems, minorities that have no chance of going back, single family-head households or vulnerable children that are unaccompanied – base on certain criteria.

“But every person before they come to Canada they have to be screened to check on their background and their identity, they have to go through health tests to make sure they don’t have a contagious disease that could have an impact on public health in Canada, so there is a whole series of measures that have to be done,” Matthews said.

Screening for ‘bad apples’

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Blue Star Patmos from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, October 29, 2015.

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Blue Star Patmos from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, October 29, 2015. ©  Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

And then there is the challenge of security screening.

“The sad reality is that, yes all refugees are civilian, but there could be a few bad apples among the refugee population,” Matthews said. “So they’re going to have to check everyone’s background and that’s not a process that you could simply enter into a Google search and get the answer.”

Once the Canadian government selects the refugees it wants to resettle in Canada, it has to figure out how to bring them into the country.

A logistical puzzle

Experts interviewed by CBC News warn Canada’s relatively small air force would be stretched to the limit and unable to sustain regular operations if it were called to airlift the refugees from the Middle East.

They suggest chartering civilian airliners to fly in the refugees would be a better option.

Lebanon deja vu

In the summer of 2006, at the height of the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Canadian government had to charter cruise ships and airliners to help thousands of Canadian citizens escape the fighting. Canadians in Lebanon were first ferried to neighbouring Cyprus and then flown to Canada on chartered flights.

Canadians who where evacuated from Lebanon on the ferry Akgunler 1 wait to disembark in Mersin, Turkey Sunday, July 23, 2006.
Canadians who where evacuated from Lebanon on the ferry Akgunler 1 wait to disembark in Mersin, Turkey Sunday, July 23, 2006. © PC/JONATHAN HAYWARD

It took 61 chartered flights and 4 flights operated by the Department of National Defence to bring in 13,370 Canadians fleeing the war.

To fulfil Trudeau’s ambitious promise would require twice as many flights.

Retired brigadier-general Gaston Cloutier  told CBC News the logistics of bringing in 25,000 people are so intense, it’s unlikely the government could meet its obligations without relying heavily on the military and its network of bases and troops across the country.

“From my perspective, the military could play a great role, an important role, in accepting Syrian refugees,” Cloutier said. “The Canadian Forces, we are used to dealing with crisis situations, and we have the logistical system in place to react to crisis situations, and also we have the command and control elements that can react to crisis.”

Cloutier was in charge of the 8 Wing Trenton air base in 1999 when the Liberal government at the time welcomed 5,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees fleeing conflict and ethnic cleansing in their homeland.

Learning from Operation Parasol

It’s a template Canada could use again to bring in the Syrian refugees.

A Kosovar woman leads a parade of Kosovar children past Canadian soldiers at CFB Trenton after the plane full of refugees landed in May 1999. Canada is considering a massive airlift of Syrian refugees.
A Kosovar woman leads a parade of Kosovar children past Canadian soldiers at CFB Trenton after the plane full of refugees landed in May 1999. Canada is considering a massive airlift of Syrian refugees. © CP/Frank Gunn

Back in 1999, the military set up reception centres at two air bases: 8 Wing Trenton in southern Ontario and at 14 Wing Greenwood in Nova Scotia.

At Trenton, Cloutier established a reception centre to welcome refugees and a separate facility where they were processed by immigration and customs officials, and where they received a cursory medical examination.

He said both military and civilian police were on hand, as were officials of the Canadian Red Cross and volunteers from the Salvation Army.

Winter is coming

However, both the Lebanon evacuation and the Kosovo operation happened in the summer. In 1999, 2,500 Kosovar refugees were housed under canvas tents at an air cadet summer camp at Trenton.

That would not be a possibility this December.

“A rough calculation is that every air base in Canada would have to be involved in order to accept 25,000 refugees,” Cloutier said. “Every air base, and to some extent, every army base or navy base could be involved — would have to be involved — from my perspective.”

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3 comments on “Massive Syrian refugee airlift would strain Canada’s diplomatic and military resources
  1. Mark Edwards says:

    There are NO words. I fully sympathize with the people caught in the situation in syria, northern iraq, turkey. Having worked in that part of the world for over a decade, I’ve friends, co-workers, and aquaintances, that I’m very close with. As much as I feel for them, would do what I can to assist them, I find that the canadian government literally has their heads in their backsides. Over 800 million this year alone? 1.2 billion over the next 6 years?? to support additional immigrants? Who will pay for this? Who will subsidize their cost of living, as well as the tax free business loan the government will invariably give each one of them to start their life in canada….
    Meanwhile, canadians that are ALREADY living in canada, lose their jobs, their homes, live on the streets, with NO aid what so ever from the canadian government.
    Could I go get a business load that I don’t need to repay for the next 5 years or so? Will the government support me when I lose my job and can’t make my bills as the current economy is what it is?????
    Is THIS where my tax dollars will go? Or why my taxes keep increasing?
    It isn’t just trudeau… It’s been this way for as long as I can remember… Canada isn’t for canadians… the canadian government isn’t for canadians…

  2. JUSTIN TRUDEAU RUSHING TO BRING IN 25,000 SYRIAN REFUGEES FROM CAMPS IN LEBANON, JORDAN AND TURKEY!! Is this idiot not aware that 20,000 bloodthirsty jihadis (ISIS) are embedded among the refugees in Lebanon’s camps, ready to be plucked out?? (This according to Lebanese Education Minister, ELIAS BOU SAAB)

  3. Ibrahim says:

    they did not identify from which country will take the refugees, I live in Iraqi Kurdistan How can I communicate with the campaign,
    Regard