Government eases rules on Syrian refugee claims but maintains security paramount

Immigration minister Chris Alexander (Credit: The Canadian Press).

OTTAWA — The Conservative government says it will speed up the processing of Syrian refugee applications in an effort to issue "thousands more" visas before the end of this year.

Syrians fleeing the civil war and sectarian conflict will no longer have to prove they are convention refugees under the United Nations Refugee Agency, but will be presumed to be refugees by Canadian authorities for the purposes of vetting their applications.

The government will also put more diplomats on the ground overseas to screen refugees, more than double the number of staff working to process sponsorship applications here in Canada, and appoint a special co-ordinator to handle the overall file of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

"Security screening will remain the top priority," Chris Alexander, the minister of citizenship and immigration, said Saturday at a news conference in east Toronto where he's campaigning for re-election on Oct. 19.

Alexander stressed that the government is "accelerating our existing commitment" to refugee resettlement, not increasing the actual target numbers.

But the new measures, which are expected to cost $25 million over two years, could speed up the movement of some 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada from the current three-year timetable by about 15 months, he said.

A campaigning Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also proposed to bring in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees if re-elected.

The humanitarian crisis spreading from Syria into Europe has sideswiped the election campaign and put Harper's Conservative government on the defensive ever since it emerged that the extended family of a drowned Syrian toddler aspired to come to Canada.

The aunt of dead three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose photo galvanized international attention, lives in the Vancouver area and had failed in a refugee sponsorship bid for the young boy's uncle earlier this year.

One of the roadblocks to the Kurdi family's reunification was their lack of convention refugee status from the overwhelmed UN body.

That hurdle, which the Conservatives imposed in a previous round of refugee reforms, has been removed.

"We did not make up this plan on the back of a napkin or pull it out of thin air," said Alexander.

"We looked carefully at our capacity. We looked carefully at the steps and procedures to keep Canada and Canadians safe. And we've come up with a much accelerated plan that will bring 10,000 Syrian refugees here by September 2016."

Harper, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are back out on the campaign trail Sunday after a down day Saturday to regroup.

Opposition parties who have been clamouring for faster government handling of the Syrian refugee crisis — and for accepting increased numbers of refugees — gave only grudging approval.

While Canadians, from individual sponsors to city mayors and provincial premiers, have been acting, Harper has been stonewalling, Liberal candidate John McCallum said in a release.

"Today he recognized that the Conservative government's policies were failing," said the Liberal. "He has refused to provide leadership on this issue, continually hiding behind fear mongering and bureaucratic roadblocks."

Earlier Saturday, Harper announced in a press release that a re-elected Conservative government would create something called a "Maple Leaf" designation, to be awarded to no more than five to seven individuals per year.

The release from the prime minister says new Canadians are great ambassadors, while noting that one in five Canadians — some 6.8 million — are foreign born.

Harper created something of a social media storm during an election leaders' debate Thursday in Calgary when he referred to "old stock" Canadians while defending his government's cuts to refugee health care. New Democrats and Liberals jumped on the comment, alleging Harper is dividing Canadians by suggesting citizens can be characterized in separate categories.

"We're lucky to have millions of people who come to Canada to build a new life and also maintain close ties with their birth country," Harper said in Saturday's news release.

The Conservative party said in a background release that recipients of the proposed award must have "a track record of promoting strong links between Canada and their home country as exemplified by business investment, arts and cultural exchanges, and international development work."

Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press

Story updated 18:21 EDT

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