Inside the labyrinthine process of helping refugees reach Canada

  • Date 8 December 2015
  • Publication The Globe and Mail

By Sara Elizabeth Williams and Samya Kullab

About 2,000 Syrian refugees have made their way through a three-day gauntlet of interviews, biometric scanning and physical and mental health checks in an airport hangar on the outskirts of Amman, but none has yet been issued the golden ticket: a Canadian visa.

In Beirut, the recently inaugurated refugee processing centre has the ambitious target of seeing 300 to 400 people a day, and is making adjustments to see if the number can be increased.

“Bear in mind this has just been stood up recently,” said Sharon Chomyn, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s lead on the ground in the Beirut centre, which is located in a top-secret facility that The Globe and Mail was permitted to access on the condition it not be publicly disclosed. “We built this operation in the space of seven to eight days, we solved problems and we worked things out day by day.”

Despite opening on Nov. 29 and Dec. 1 respectively, the centres in Amman and Beirut are not yet running at capacity. Not all of the refugees who complete screening – and the mandatory chest X-ray done at a hospital off-site – will be offered a visa.

“This is a very unusual processing centre, and we have not reached our cruising speed yet,” said Olivier Jacques, director of the Amman operations centre.

His counterpart in Beirut, Oscar Jacobs, said the aim was to offer same-day service. “We don’t want to get into a case management situation of calling people back. Our efficiencies are built on getting people in and out on the same day so we’re ready for the next batch.”

It begins with registration. Refugees are handed a kit of papers and a checklist to kick off the “treasure hunt,” as Mr. Jacobs describes the labyrinthine process from biometric screening to tedious form-filling and interviews.

But the process is not limited to the diplomatic missions in Beirut or Amman. The files are processed remotely across the network in embassies as far away as Paris and Mexico, Mr. Jacobs said.

“We have a case-processing system that allows us to share work,” Ms. Chomyn explained. “Many years ago, all the parts of the processing had to happen in one office. Now we are more agile, and different pieces can be done in different places so that allows us to get through cases faster.”

The uniqueness of the project and the challenges inherent in processing so much information in such a short time mean the Amman centre’s 100 staff – aid workers from the International Organization for Migration and the Danish Refugee Council, and members of the Canadian Army – see about 400 refugees a day, 100 short of their goal. The centre processes people for the government-assisted refugee program.

In Beirut, the centre sees both the latter group and private sponsorship cases. In the back office of the facility, a group of IRCC staff sit furiously typing on their computers; this is the last step of the process where all the information collected during the day is consolidated into one file and uploaded to the network.

Eventually, two daily charter flights will take 700 people a day, up to 4,000 a week, from this hangar outside Amman to new lives in Canada. But when these flights will start and which country or airline will provide them is still unclear.

“To be honest, we were sort of hoping you guys would know,” one of the green-fatigued Canadian soldiers said to a group of journalists.

What is clear for both refugees and the people helping them get to Canada is the enormity of what is at stake with this project.

A family of four undergoing the first in a series of interviews was nervous. “After the bad situation in Syria, you just want to live in peace,” said the father, Bader Da’afees, 35, who is from Homs. “I’m not worried about Islamophobia. I expect Canadians will recognize that I am Muslim and respect my faith. The main thing is our children and their future.”

Baby AbdelRahman slept in his mother Noor’s lap, but little Jannah, 3, looked up. Asked by her father if she wanted to be Canadian one day, she smiled, “Yes.”

Back in Beirut, Jinane Mneirej and her two daughters waited to be ushered into the biometric screening room. “It’s not easy to leave the only home you know, but the war made it necessary,” she said, declining to specify where in Syria she originated. When the IOM staff worker signalled to her, she turned to go. “Wish us luck.”

But some Syrian families were distressed by how fast things were going. Mr. Jacobs said many cleared for departure wanted to delay. “One family said they had a washer-dryer they still needed to sell, someone else said they had pets to take care of,” he recounted.

Helping people on their pathway to Canadian citizenship is front of mind for Canadian Army Corporal George Drouillard, 26, from Trenton, Ont.

“I’m ready to help people become new Canadians. Seeing these big families with seven or eight kids, this really solidified it for me, that what we’re doing here is the right thing,” he said.

Other officials agree.

“Canada has a history of being a humanitarian leader. When we get it right, it can be used as a model for other countries,” said Wendy Gall, deputy immigration program manager with IRCC, flown in from New York.

“Certainly, there are families I go home and smile about. It’s the future of Canada.”