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Slow progress to clear refugee backlog

By Michael Swan

The Catholic Register

02/28/2018

TORONTO (CCN) — As they wait to learn about 2018 quotas, sponsoring agencies are set to welcome 18,000 refugees this year, including many who have waited for years to finally start a new life in Canada.

A backlog of up to 45,000 privately sponsored refugees frustrates Deacon Rudy Ovcjak, director of the Archdiocese of Toronto Office for Refugees. Last year ORAT helped Toronto parishes and others welcome nearly 1,200 refugees, but that still leaves 4,000 in the pipeline.

“While Immigration Canada may have made significant progress in reducing the backlog for spousal sponsorships, they have not had any such success with the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) backlog,” Ovjak told The Catholic Register in an email.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has promised far more refugees will be processed this year.

Average processing times for privately sponsored refugees can vary wildly. Refugees in Iraq who have church sponsors lined up can be in Canada in 15 months. The average processing time for refugees stuck in Lebanon is 18 months.

But at the other end of the scale, refugees in Ethiopia are left waiting an average of 68 months. For refugees stuck in South Africa it’s 69 months. Canadian-sponsored refugees in India wait for an average of 81 months — nearly seven years.

“Certain IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) missions overseas have clearly not been adequately resourced to support the demand of the PSR program in that region,” said Hamilton Diocese Office of Refugees director Erin Pease. 

“Such a large backlog is, of course, not at all good for the PSR program and none of us like it,” said the Archdiocese of Edmonton’s refugee sponsorship co-ordinator Paulette Johnson. But Johnson believes Ottawa is making progress in clearing up the backlog. She’s confident that the government will keep its promise to reduce PSR wait times to an average of one year by 2020.

“We are actually impressed with what this government has been doing,” Johnson said in an email.

To get down to one-year processing times, Immigration Canada is planning to unite 57,000 refugees with their private sponsors in Canada over the next three years. Most of the sponsors are faith-based groups who undertake to absorb the costs and provide the volunteer hours to ensure refugees settle successfully in Canada. From 2018 to 2020, Canada will annually welcome about four times the yearly average over the previous decade — numbers Canada’s private sponsors haven’t seen since the Boat People from Vietnam began arriving 30 years ago.

In Hamilton, Pease is more cautious about the government’s plans to get refugee wait times down to one year.

“One concern with IRCC’s 2018-2020 Immigration Levels Plan is that it is not ambitious enough,” said Pease. “While PSR arrivals are set to increase in 2018, 2019 and 2020, the arrival targets are not sufficiently high to reduce the PSR inventory to a reasonable size that can be managed within a reasonable timeframe — seemingly established by IRCC to be a 12-month term — unless significant human resource changes are made at key IRCC missions overseas.”

Pease points out that the government has had some success in drawing down the massive backlog of refugees in Africa by adding more paper pushers in Dar es Salaam and Rome. Currently, it’s the vast differences between the processing times for refugees in the Middle East and refugees in Africa and South Asia that worries Pease.

“While the issue of the size of IRCC’s PSR inventory is important, a key problem that must be rectified is ensuring that processing timelines for all PSR applicants are in closer alignment, irrespective of the country of asylum in the world where a refugee finds herself,” she said.

In addition to bringing in larger numbers, the government is limiting the number of new sponsorships church groups can apply for. “How could they reduce a backlog without reducing input?” asks Johnson.

In total, Sponsorship Agreement Holders across Canada were allowed to submit 7,500 new cases last year. This year they will be allowed 8,000 new applications, though how many applications individual sponsoring agencies will be allocated won’t be revealed until the end of February.

Edmonton parishes sent delegations out to the airport last year to greet refugees they had been waiting for since 2011, though most were cases that had been submitted in 2015 or 2016.

“It was so wonderful to have them (IRCC) finally process those old cases,” Johnson said.

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