Imagine that you are a member of a church that was so moved by the refugee crisis in Syria that you decided to sponsor a Syrian family. Imagine further that the family you sponsored was not among the first 25,000 to come to Canada after the Liberal government won a majority mandate, and that family ended up waiting four or six months to arrive in Canada rather than the mere days or weeks of the earlier families.
The refugee waiting game
It doesn’t take much imagination because this is what happened after February 2016. But let’s carry our thoughts further back than the thousands of Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada in late 2015 and 2016. There are refugees sponsored by churches, mosques and other sponsorship organizations in Canada who had submitted applications three, four and five years ago. Many are still waiting for their applications to be processed by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada at visa posts overseas. While we are gratified at the number of Syrians that arrived in a short timeframe, we are disturbed by the long processing times for many other refugee populations.
CPJ’s new report
Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) recently published a report, “A Half Welcome,” based on a survey of Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs) in Canada. The purpose was to discover the biggest obstacles to carrying out a sponsorship program that is responsive to global refugee resettlement needs. CPJ’s intern Bolu Coker was tasked with carrying out the survey and interpreting the results.
The most disturbing problem cited by most who responded to the survey is the long wait times for arrivals of sponsored refugees. These are people who had completed the complicated refugee applications and have waited for these applications to be processed. This came as no surprise to me. From 2004 to 2014 I worked for World Renew, a SAH. There was no time during that decade, and since, when the average processing times were in an acceptable timeframe of 12-18 months.
The survey found related problems hindering the efforts of SAHs that work with sponsoring groups, including churches. Two main difficulties were inadequate communication between processing officers and sponsoring groups and unfair financial requirements; most refugees must pay back loans given for medical exams and transportation to Canada while some others do not.
In 2016, a total of 403 refugees were sponsored through World Renew by churches and groups across Canada.
The report’s recommendations
In the report CPJ identifies four recommendations to eliminate injustices regarding the private sponsorship program and removing obstacles to efficient resettlement to Canada. The first recommendation encourages the Canadian government to deal with the lengthy processing times.
This issue is more complex than it seems. It is not simply a matter of placing more resources at critical visa posts overseas. The government hopes to eliminate the backlog of applications by 2019, but in order to do so it has placed limits on the number of new applications that may be submitted by SAHs each year. Thus sponsors cannot work to full capacity. Furthermore, they don’t know from year to year how many refugees they will be able to sponsor. The government has not provided a three-year levels plan, as was done previously to help sponsors plan for their own staffing and resourcing. The second and third recommendations deal with those two issues.
Refugees who are resettled to Canada, either under the private sponsorship program or through the government assisted refugees program, receive a loan from the Canadian government to pay for required medical exams overseas prior to arrival and for the transportation costs to Canada. Only Syrian refugees who arrived after November 2015 and before March 2016 were exempt. Currently, only government-assisted Syrian refugees are exempt – which is inherently unfair. All privately sponsored refugees and all other resettled populations repay travel loans. As sponsors believe this is unjust, the report finally recommends waiving transportation loans for all refugees resettling in Canada.
Suggestions for citizens’ actions
The complete text of the report and the full wording of the recommendations can be found online (cpj.ca). CPJ encourages citizens to take the following actions with the report’s recommendations:
1) Contact your MP by email, phone, letters or in person. Tell personal stories or experiences about problems with refugee resettlement.
2) Share your concern on social media and with sponsoring groups you know.
3) Present the report’s data to meetings with government representatives.
4) Organize events to raise awareness on these issues more broadly.
Where justice in refugee resettlement is done, thank God and the government. Where that is not the case, pray to God and lobby the government to do better.