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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn


Do you think Canada has done what it should to assist refugees?

“Definitely not yet,” seems to be the reply of people directly involved in the private sponsorship of refugees across this country.

A review of the perspectives of Sponsorship Agreement Holders, or SAHs, was carried out by Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) and released in mid-April. (SAHs are groups that have a signed agreement with the federal government to receive and resettle refugees. Eighteen of these groups are Roman Catholic dioceses.) CPJ obtained data from SAHs across Canada, by means of surveys and direct interviews. As such, the views expressed emanate from persons who have direct hands-on experience with refugee reception and settlement in our communities.

CPJ’s study “A Half Welcome: Delays, Limits and Inequities in Canadian Private Sponsorship” points to at least four major shortfalls in the design and operation of the private sponsorship system in Canada.

In the first place, 97 per cent of SAHs are either concerned, or very concerned, with long wait times from when an application is filed with government and the eventual arrival of the sponsored refugees. Refugees face logistical challenges in supplying application information in arduous situations or conflict zones (such as the woman who was asked to provide expensive DNA testing for her children in an African refugee camp, in order to prove she was their mother.) But delays can also occur at processing centres overseas, often due to scarce resources at visa posts, or even at the Centralized Processing Office in Winnipeg. A community group willing to sponsor refugees cannot be kept waiting for years, or interest will wane and other uses will attract competing uses for the collected funds.

A related concern was expressed by 94 per cent of SAH respondents who despair of the long wait times for non-Syrian applications. Patti Fitzmaurice, a lawyer and the co-ordinator of social justice ministry at the Archdiocese of Winnipeg, has noted, for example, that they have been waiting for over six years to receive a refugee family from Ethiopia. The government provides processing times for refugee claims on its website, broken down by country. Imagine: an application from Ethiopia takes 74 months, Afghanistan takes 63 months and Haiti takes 54 months. When priority was given by the Liberal government to the quick processing of Syrian applications, it proved that expedited processing was possible. But it causes distress when urgent needs from other parts of the world are not being treated equitably.

Over 87 per cent of respondents were also concerned that requests for refugees eligible for sponsorship exceeds the government-imposed allocation limits. Sponsors request better communication from government, as well as advance planning (perhaps providing numbers over three years) so that communities know what allocations government may allow in the various sponsorship categories.

The fourth concern has to do with Canada’s policy to offer refugees loans to cover transportation, medical exams, travel documents, etc. Refugees must start to repay these loans within 30 days of their arrival in Canada. However, when the Liberals promised to expedite Syrian arrivals, the travel loans were waived. Seventy-five per cent of SAHs noted that this policy is of concern, as it imposes an unfair burden on those coming, often with nothing, from other parts of the globe. Statistics Canada reports that 34 per cent of newcomers to Canada live in poverty — so why add this burden on newly arrived refugees?

Canadians can be proud that our country facilitated the entry of so many Syrian refugees in 2015 - 2016. Yet there is no reason to assume that the system is perfect, or perfectly fair. An engaged society and culture can continue to improve our capacity to assist vulnerable asylum-seekers. Globally, human migration is now at unheralded levels. It will only grow due to economic inequality, climate change and environmental destruction, and international conflict. As Patti Fitzmaurice says, “This CPJ report is a concise brief of the concerns of those who sponsor refugees across most of Canada. If implemented, the recommendations would enhance Canada’s excellent efforts.”

At their September 2015 plenary meeting, Canada’s Catholic bishops adopted a resolution that every Catholic parish and religious community in Canada sponsor a refugee family. Many parishes did so; fewer contacted government concerning how to improve the system. The bishops went on to ask the government of Canada to “expand, accelerate, and facilitate the private sponsorship of refugees during this time of urgent need.” Bishop Douglas Crosby, CCCB president, reiterated his concern over the waiting times for Syrian and non-Syrian refugees in a letter to the minister on Oct. 6, 2016.

In order to sustain public interest in the program, and to ensure refugees have the best possible chance of success here, the federal government would do well to work with SAHs and churches to eliminate the policy hurdles that block effective private sponsorship.

If you think Canada has done what it should to assist refugees, please think again.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.