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Churches left in the dark on changes to refugee policy

Many of us belong to churches that are actively involved in resettling refugees here in Canada. As congregations, we have taken on the financial and emotional commitment of supporting a refugee or refugee family for their first year in Canada.

For those who have gone through the process, the following situation isn’t difficult to imagine.

In November 2011, a church submitted an application to sponsor a family of eight to come to Canada. At first, things were moving along well. The family was interviewed less than a year later, in July 2012. But now, more than two years since that interview and three years since the application was submitted, not only has the family not arrived, the sponsoring church has not heard anything from the Visa Office or Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).

Supporting a family for one year usually includes raising between $20,000 to $30,000, depending on the family’s size. The funds this church raised now sit frozen in an account rather than working to assist a family. Given their frustration with this process, the congregation wonders if it will ever sponsor again.

Lack of consultation
These kinds of difficulties are not unique among churches in Canada, according to “Private Sponsorship and Public Policy,” a new report from Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), a faith-based non-profit that promotes justice in Canadian public policy. The report surveyed church-connected sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs) from most of the major Christian denominations in Canada. Each of these SAHs have a signed agreement with the federal government to submit sponsorship applications for themselves and sponsoring groups, just as the congregation mentioned above did. Since private sponsorship began in 1978, more than 200,000 refugees have come to Canada. And the majority of SAHs are churches and church-connected organizations.

Today long wait times and a lack of consultation are among the top concerns for these churches, CPJ’s report concluded. The main government form has changed three times in the past three years. “People designing the forms have no understanding of the realities faced by refugees,” one respondent said.

In 2013, CIC announced that Canada would accept up to 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. All but 200 cases were unilaterally allocated to private sponsorship – something churches didn’t initially realize. “We heard that on the radio,” said one survey respondent. “It was such a slap in the face. We didn’t even find out before the Canadian public.” When the government implemented its new Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) cases, a hybrid sponsorship model that “blends” government and private support, there was no consultation with SAHs to determine if they had capacity for these new cases. It is exactly these types of actions that respondents cited when 88 percent of them reported concern about the decrease in consultation from the government.

An expression of faith
Many of the policies recently implemented by CIC make it more difficult for churches to bring refugees safely to Canada. For those who view refugee sponsorship as a response to Christ’s call, in Matthew 25:35, to welcome the stranger, these policies pose a direct challenge to how they express their of faith.

As a sponsorship agreement holder itself, World Renew is responsible for processing cases for Christian Reformed Churches across the country. According to Rebecca Walker, their Refugee Resettlement Coordinator, many churches have shown dedication and resiliency in the face of these new changes.

“We respond to family members in Canada,” she said. “If the church has been approached by a family member in Canada, the church wants to assist and support this person [in helping family immigrate] in some way. They will take on the sponsorship even with long wait times.”

According to Walker, some churches submit several sponsorships at a time with the expectation that the arrivals will be staggered over several years. Others are using the BVOR program, where wait times are much shorter.

CC readers may remember an article on the age of dependency for children accompanying their parents, down to 19 years of age from 22 (“New year, new rules for refugees,” January 13, 2014). Last July, Dena Nicolai (“Canadian doctors and nurses fight for refugees’ right to health care”) explained federal cuts to refugee health care. In both of these cases, refugee sponsors were not consulted in advance of the policy announcements.

Social assistance for refugees
The federal government’s fall budget implementation bill announced that it would no longer require provinces to provide social assistance to everyone who qualifies, regardless of residency. This means that refugee claimants, unable to work while they wait for their cases to be heard, will be left out.

The purpose of the budget implementation bill is to put into practice the policies announced in the annual spring budget. Yet when Jim Flaherty rose to present his final budget in March of last year, no mention of social assistance for refugees was made.

This strange process meant there was no opportunity for groups to give input before the announcement was made. In November 2014, a letter was sent on behalf of 160 organizations to Joe Oliver, the new Finance Minister. Among the signatories were several Christian groups including World Renew, the Mennonite Central Committee Canada and Citizens for Public Justice. Many of these groups also submitted briefs to the House of Commons Citizenship and Immigration Committee.

Advocacy: Private or public?
Many SAHs believe that these current policy shifts may make private sponsorship prohibitively difficult. But others fear that raising their concerns publicly will put their role as private sponsors at risk.

According to CPJ’s report, over two-thirds (68 percent) of church-connected SAHs have written to or met privately with politicians. Meanwhile, 96 percent of them are part of the Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association, which regularly meets privately with government officials. Yet even the SAH Association’s correspondence to the minster often goes unanswered.

Meanwhile, less than half (44 percent) of these groups sign on to public statements or open letters. World Renew is one of the latter group. It often issues its own letters to politicians with the support of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, collaborates with the Canadian Council of Refugees and calls for sponsoring churches to get engaged themselves, by writing and meeting with their own MPs.

Advocating privately can be a very effective method. But when the government blatantly ignores your concerns, it is critical to take your message public. Unless public opinion changes as well, there is little incentive for the government to change course. The most uncommon method of public engagement among SAHs was with the media through op-eds and letters to the editor (eight percent).

Churches are looking for the best avenue to make sure their concerns are being heard. While it is encouraging to see churches exploring a variety of avenues to influence public policy, more can still be done.

  • Brad Wassink is the Communications Coordinator with Citizens for Public Justice a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa.

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