TORONTO (AP) — Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government said Saturday that it will issue thousands more visas to Syrian refugees before the end of this year by accelerating the processing of their applications, as it tries to counter election-year criticism over its handling of the refugee crisis.
Canada will bring in 10,000 refugees by Sept. 2016, 15 months ahead of schedule. The government said it will speed the processing of Syrian refugees by no longer requiring them to prove their refugee status through the United Nations refugee agency. Instead, Syrians will be presumed to be refugees by Canadian authorities who vet their applications.
Canada again declined to resettle more Syrian refugees. The country has long prided itself for opening its doors to asylum seekers, but the numbers have waned since Harper took power almost 10 years ago.
Harper's handling of Syrian refugees has become a top election issue for Canadians, who will decide if the prime minister earns a rare fourth term on Oct. 19. Harper is locked in a tight three-way race.
Harper's government has endured criticism for taking in just 2,500 refugees since Jan. 2014, especially after the photo a 3-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying face down on a Turkish beach made headlines around the world two weeks ago. More than 4 million Syrians have fled their country since the conflict erupted in 2011.
Several countries have announced they'll take in thousands of more refugees since the dead toddler's photo became an unforgettable symbol of Syrians' desperation to escape the war that has ravaged their homeland.
Harper's rivals have called on him to follow suit. Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien has called Harper's refusal a "cold-hearted reaction" to the Syrian crisis that has "shamed Canada in the eyes of Canadians and of the international community."
The Harper government announced in January it would accept 10,000 over three years and promised in August to accept an additional 10,000 over four years.
Chris Alexander, the minister of citizenship and immigration, said during a press conference that the government will allow families to sponsor those who haven't yet received refugee status.
Harper has emphasized the importance of screening refugee claimants in recent weeks. The government will now expand staff in Canada who process applications and send more visa officers overseas.
The cost of these measures, Alexander said, will be $25 million over two fiscal years.
Canada announced last Saturday that it will provide $100 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugee camps but has been steadfast in declining to resettle more refugees.
In decades past, Canada quickly resettled vast numbers of refugees. It airlifted over 5,000 people from Kosovo in the 1990s, over 5,000 from Uganda in 1972 and resettled 60,000 Vietnamese in 1979-80.
More than 1.2 million refugees have arrived in Canada since World War II. But the number of refugees has declined since Harper became prime minister in 2006. According to the United Nations, Canada has dropped from the fifth-highest refugee-receiving country in 2000 to 15th last year.