Canada is extending its Iraqi refugee program for another two years, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced Saturday, which will allow an additional 8,600 refugees to resettle in the country between 2011 and 2013.
Last year, the minister pledged to accept more than double the number of refugees who applied through Iraqis' most popular route to Canada -- the Canadian mission in Damascus. The government estimated that, between 2009 and 2011, approximately 2,500 refugees would be resettled through its private sponsorship program annually.
Earlier this year, Canada also increased the number of refugees it plans to resettle through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, from 1,400 to 1,800 per year.
Canada will extend both programs "by at least two additional years," Kenney said in a news release issued on Saturday, and called on Canadians to come forward as sponsors.
"Canada already has a generous resettlement program. And now, up to 8,600 more refugees will find protection in Canada," Kenney said. "At a time when many other countries are scaling back their refugee programs, we are actually expanding ours."
Earlier this year, the government pledged to boost the number of refugees it accepts annually by 20 per cent, including 2,000 more privately sponsored refugees and 500 additional government-sponsored refugees. In total, Canada accepts about 14,500 refugees per year.
The announcement comes at a time when the government is vowing to crack down on human smugglers and illegal migrants after two boatloads of Tamil residents arrived in Canadian waters seeking asylum.
On Thursday, Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews introduced a new bill that would allow the government to designate those who arrive in Canada as part of a "human smuggling event" as "irregular arrivals." Such individuals could then be placed into a different processing stream than other refugees.
The bill would also make it more difficult for illegal migrants to qualify to remain in Canada, and increase penalties for those caught supporting human smuggling.
On Saturday, Kenney said "it is unfair to those seeking to come to Canada through legitimate, legal means -- such as the measure I am announcing today -- when others pay human smugglers to help jump our immigration queue. When this happens, Canada's immigration system becomes less fair and less balanced."