Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I also thank the committee for its interest in this very important issue.
As you have said, my name is Micheline Aucoin and I am the Director General of the Refugees Branch at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).
I am joined by Bruce Scoffield, Director of Operational Coordination in the International Region of CIC; Catherine Godin, Director of the Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response Group, from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT); and Françoise Ducros, Director General, Europe, Middle East and Maghreb, from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
Together we will be happy to take your questions at the end of the presentation.
The Government of Canada continually monitors refugee conditions around the world, including the latest developments in Iraq, in consultation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Canada appreciates the gravity of the situation in Iraq and is very concerned for the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have left Iraq for neighbouring countries, as well as the 2.4 million others displaced within the country.
CIC's field staff, who are in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have regular contact on the ground with refugees, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and officials from other resettlement countries. They have witnesses the evolution of the refugee situation first-hand, and have been reporting their findings back to CIC national headquarters on a regular basis.
Earlier in the conflict, the UNHCR and the international community expected the displacement to be temporary, and that Iraqis could return home, in the foreseeable future, from neighbouring countries providing protection.
As time went by, the protection environment in the countries of first asylum deteriorated and by late 2006 the UNHCR began identifying the most vulnerable in the population and those in need of resettlement to a third country.
Discussions between CIC and UNHCR officials, both in the region and in Geneva, have been ongoing on the role that resettlement could play in this declining protection environment.
In addition, senior CIC officials travelled to Syria, Jordan and Turkey earlier this year to discuss with the UNHCR and NGOs how Canada's resettlement program could best support the UNHCR's resettlement strategy.
We have been working within our legislative, policy and budgetary frameworks to assist Iraqis displaced by the situation, and to help them resettle in Canada as refugees or, when appropriate, to enter under other immigrant categories.
Given the severity of the situation, and in an effort to speed up the process, Canada agreed to accept simplified UNHCR referral procedures for the majority of Iraqi refugees. Canadian visa officers overseas continue to assess all refugees referred on a case-by-case basis, to ensure the applicant meets all legislative and security requirements, and to be sure that the settlement to Canada is, indeed, the best and most logical choice for the individual and his or her family.
In addition, members of this committee will have heard the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration recently announce measures to assist families affected by the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. She has instructed CIC to give priority immigration services to Iraqis and those from Iraq in surrounding countries who have close family members in Canada.
Our visa office in Damascus is giving priority to applications for permanent residence under the family class. This measure already applies to spouses and common-law and conjugal partners, as well as dependent children, and has now been extended to parents, grandparents, and other orphaned family members from Iraq sponsored by Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
In addition, our case processing centre in Mississauga will examine the eligibility of Canadian citizens and permanent residents on a priority basis to sponsor Iraqis affected by the war.
Mr. Chair, our efforts in Iraq are not new. Canada has an active resettlement program for Iraqi refugees who have sought asylum in neighbouring countries. Through our refugee resettlement program, Canada resettled almost 3,000 Iraqis between 2002 and 2006.
In 2007, CIC's resettlement target in the Middle East was 2,140, including 1,150 government-assisted refugees, GARs, and 990 privately sponsored refugees, PSRs.
In response to an appeal to assist those countries currently hosting Iraqi refugees, Canada announced last April that it would accept up to 500 additional Iraqi refugee referrals this year from the UNHCR.
We expect more than 2,000 Iraqis will have arrived in Canada by the end of this year. This number includes Iraqis who have applied as family class, refugees, and skilled workers.
In response to the situation unfolding in Iraq, we are significantly increasing our 2008 resettlement target for the Middle East to 3,350 people, of whom 2,080 are GARs and 1,270 are PSRs. We will be allocating almost 30% of our total resettlement places available to Iraqi and other refugees displaced by the war.
Given the magnitude of the displacement and its impact on neighbouring countries, it is important that the international community participate in resettlement efforts. CIC will continue to work with the international community to find long-term solutions for refugees.
At the same time, it should be noted that Canada operates a global resettlement program that in 2006 alone resettled refugees from more than 70 nationalities. And with a total of 100,000 resettlement spots available throughout the world, resettlement can be a solution for only a small fraction of the refugees. We welcome this committee's thoughts on additional steps Canada might take to find solutions to this and other refugee situations.
Of course, resettlement is not the only way Canada can provide assistance to Iraqi refugees. CIDA is active in the region, providing reconstruction and humanitarian assistance and responding to appeals by organizations such as the UNHCR.
We will continue to monitor this situation closely and we will explore more options to further meet UNHCR resettlement needs with respect to Iraqis in 2008 and beyond.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. We are happy to take your questions now.