OTTAWA -- Syrian refugees are driving a shift in Canada's immigration plan for 2016 as the Liberal government seeks to admit record numbers of new permanent residents while backing away from a previous focus on skilled labour.

Bringing in 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees by the end of this year has maxed out the immigration stream, leaving the private sector to offer vulnerable people from elsewhere in the world a chance at life in Canada.

The Liberals say they will triple the number of spots for private sponsors, part of a near-doubling of the humanitarian stream of the immigration program overall compared with levels under the Conservative government. The Liberals will also increase available spaces in the family program from a maximum 68,000 under the Conservatives last year to 82,000 this year.

Increases in the two streams are driving the government's maximum target for new permanent residents this year to 305,000, the highest in decades despite their planned decrease in economic immigration.

A maximum of 162,400 will be accepted, down about 24,000 people from last year's high target, though it's in line with the years before that.

Immigration Minister John McCallum said the plan is grounded in Canada's tradition of being a welcoming and generous country.

"It outlines a significant shift in immigration policy towards reuniting more families, building our economy and upholding Canada's humanitarian traditions to resettle refugees and offer protection to those in need," McCallum told a news conference in Brampton, Ont.

McCallum brushed off suggestions that the government was prioritizing Syrian refugees above all else, saying he would not apologize for making Canada a world leader in Syrian refugee resettlement.

His department did not immediately answer questions about whether Syrians will be the only refugees admitted in the government-assisted program this year.

Canada has several other multi-year commitments to resettle specific groups, including Congolese, Eritreans and Colombians, but have only set aside 25,000 spots in the government-assisted program, leaving room for no one but Syrians.

The head of the sponsorship agreement holders association, which oversees the privately sponsored refugees program, said the overall increase in refugee intake is good news.

But Brian Dyck said he hopes it means the government is preparing to work though a backlog in private applications to sponsor refugees from Africa while also accepting applications for Syrians.

Private groups are also concerned about the caps the government is placing on where it will accept applications from. In previous years, there was no maximum for Syrians or Iraqis but it appears a cut-off will be set this year.

"There is a lot of frustration about the caps in the (sponsorship) community because we all get a lot of pressure from people to sponsor refugees from many populations and the interest in resettling Syrians through the (privately sponsored program) is growing as well," he said in an email.

Meanwhile, Opposition critic Michelle Rempel said the decrease in the number of economic immigrants will be felt by provinces, even those with struggling economies like her home province of Alberta.

Immigration policy isn't made for today but for the future, she said, and employers will need those skilled workers when things pick up.

"I think that what the government has failed to do today is explain how their immigration programs are going to affect the Canadian economy," she said.

The Conservatives had introduced a new application system for economic immigrants last year called Express Entry that was supposed to get more skilled labour to Canada faster. McCallum said that system is now under review, as is the application processing system for other immigrations streams like family reunification.

While the overall numbers in the family program are higher this year, there is still a massive existing backlog of cases. Existing backlogs are a problem in the caregiver program as well, and the government has cut spaces in that program this year a maximum of 22,000, down from 30,000 last year.

McCallum said the government intends to learn from the Syrian program when it comes to getting applications moving faster.

"If we can transfer the lessons learned from Syria to how to deal more quickly with caregivers and family class applications than we can make a lot of progress," he said.