Toronto, Sept 20: Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has said 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 September 2016, 15 months ahead of schedule.
The government said it will speed up 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 number it welcomes has 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 October 19.
Harper is locked in a tight three-way race. Harper's government has endured criticism for taking in just 2,500 refugees since January 2014, especially after the photo a three-year-old boy, Alan 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 groups of five and families to sponsor those who have not yet received refugee status.
Harper has emphasised 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 USD 25 million over two fiscal years.