TORONTO (CCN) — The problem of long processing times for refugees to Canada will be fixed by 2019, promises Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen.
A survey by Christian think-tank Citizens For Public Justice reveals that 97 per cent of the agencies who bring privately sponsored refugees to Canada are concerned about processing times.
Hussen claims the problems are an overhang from the previous Conservative government and that processing times will shrink to less than 12 months. For refugees coming from some countries, like Ethiopia, it can take about six years for a claim to be processed.
Hussen says his department is working closely with the Canadian Sponsorship Agreement Holders’ Association to speed up the bureaucratic application process for sponsors, but the problem is a backlog of refugees left in limbo over previous years.
“We inherited those backlogs from the previous government, which allowed those backlogs to balloon irresponsibly,” Hussen told The Catholic Register.
The minister promises Canada will take a big bite out of the mounting inventory of refugees who have been promised resettlement in Canada this year.
“Our levels plan this year is historic,” he said.
The government has committed to bring in 25,000 government-sponsored refugees and another 16,000 privately sponsored. The majority of the privately sponsored are brought in by faith groups, with various Catholic agencies leading the charge.
Asylum seekers who apply for refugee status after they arrive in Canada are added on top of the government’s levels plan.
Higher national targets aren’t solving the problem for local sponsorship agreement holders. The Diocese of London was recently told by the immigration ministry it would be allowed to submit 157 applications this year to sponsor refugees. However, the diocese already has 401 applications ready to submit and the year is only four months old.
Fully 87 per cent of sponsorship agreement holders told Citizens for Public Justice they are either concerned (28 per cent) or very concerned (59 per cent) about allocation limits handed out by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
Sponsorship agreement holders also worry about the extraordinary effort that has gone into processing Syrian refugees. Since the photo of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach hit front pages around the world in 2015, the concern is that a two-tier refugee system has been created in Canada, where Syrians get prompt processing and refugees from other parts of the world languish.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Hussen, who came to Canada as a teenage refugee from Somalia.
Hussen is not the first Liberal immigration minister to face this complaint. In October 2016, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Bishop Doug Crosby wrote to then-immigration minister John McCallum to complain about exactly the same problem.
“In the spirit of fairness and non-discrimination, your department must expedite processing for Syrians in parallel to all refugee groups,” Crosby wrote. “It is neither reasonable nor fair for an Afghan family in Pakistan to wait 75 months, or for an Eritrean refugee in Egypt to wait 55 months, to have their sponsorship applications processed to completion.”
The Liberals have made progress in speeding up processing times and welcoming more refugees, said Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn. But Gunn is not impressed by comparisons with the previous Conservative government.
“Congratulations to the government for being different from a government of a party that is not Liberal,” Gunn said. “We might expect some things to be different, especially since they highlighted the refugee issue during the campaign and after the tragic death of Alan Kurdi. Good. They are not like the former government — yes.”
Canadians who have re-awoken to the global refugee crisis deserve a helping hand from their government, said Gunn.
“The Syrian experience was helpful and was appreciated by sponsoring groups,” Gunn said. “But it also pointed out that we can do this. The sponsoring groups are ready to take more people and there’s no reason to wait six years, six-and-a-half years for people from Ethiopia. There’s no reason for that to continue.”
Increased numbers of refugees making asylum claims inside Canada — including a wave coming across the American border out of sight of official border crossings — have no bearing on the government’s refugee policies or levels plan, Hussen said.
“We’ve had numbers go up and down in different years. We’ve had fluctuations in terms of the numbers of inland asylum claims. Our system can easily handle those fluctuations,” he said.