JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

By Joe Gunn

Are churches deterred from ‘welcoming the stranger’?

There are more refugees around the world than ever before — so why is your church having more trouble than ever in finding a way to receive, resettle and “welcome the stranger?” (Matthew 25). Canada’s bishops are currently preparing a pastoral letter on refugees — will they raise this concern?

In 2013, just over 12,000 refugees were accepted into Canada. Of those, 6,623 were sponsored by private groups who assisted their resettlement in Canada. Many privately sponsored refugees are assisted by faith groups, but community or ethnic organizations, and even individuals can also play this role. The federal government supports the remainder.

There are currently 85 Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) groups (72 per cent of these being church-connected groups, like Catholic dioceses) that have signed accords with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). These groups are able to submit sponsorship applications to the government in return for guaranteeing thousands of dollars for refugee supports. More than 200,000 refugees have been assisted to resettle in Canada by private organizations and individuals since the 1978 arrival of thousands of “Boat People” fleeing the violence in Indochina.

Government policy increasingly problematic

Citizens for Public Justice has just released a study that points to tensions that recent government action has exacerbated for refugee settlement groups. Private Sponsorship and Public Policy — http://www.cpj.ca/private-sponsorship-and-public-policy — gives a clear picture, seldom seen in the public eye, of how refugee resettlement could be improved.

Long wait and processing times were identified by 100 per cent of church-connected respondents as a major cause of concern. When Canadians Christians hear of a dangerous refugee crisis, and quickly organize to respond, they hope their government will admit refugees in an expedited manner. Yet years can pass after submission of a refugee sponsorship application before a refugee family is admitted. Most sponsoring parishes find it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain community interest, and justify successful fundraising efforts, while sitting on their hands that long.

All respondents of the survey also expressed deep concern about the federal government cuts of June 2012 to the Interim Federal Health (IFH) Program, which provided health care coverage to refugees and asylum seekers until they were eligible for provincial coverage. Privately sponsored refugees lost some health benefits such as vision care, emergency dental work, mobility devices and medication. While in a refugee camp overseas, a child with asthma can get a puffer without paying; but under this new federal policy, when they arrive in Canada, they cannot.

Forty per cent of church-connected SAHs reported that their sponsoring groups have had to pay previously covered medical expenses. And almost one-third of them said that some of their sponsoring groups will no longer continue resettling refugees as a result of the risk of added liability for health costs.

Lack of government consultation

The federal government’s lack of consultation with SAHs was a concern of 92 per cent of the church-connected SAHs.

This problem arises most pointedly when the political side of government (as opposed, they made clear, to officials in the ministry) makes unilateral decisions that hurt the ability of volunteer groups to do their jobs. For example, 88 per cent of SAHs expressed concern about this summer’s government edict that changed the definition of a dependent child from age 21 to 18 and under.

Refugee families now find their 19-year-old kids are no longer eligible to enter Canada with their parents. Another surprise to many SAHs was the 2013 announcement that Canada would accept up to 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014 — but the government would only be responsible for 200 of this number. Many SAHs learned of the minister’s decision on the radio!

Ways forward

Partnership between the federal government and refugee sponsoring organizations is essential to this program’s success. Commitment to this partnership, however, must be based on respect for the volunteers that put their own time and money on offer to better assist refugee resettlement. Most SAH groups do not publicly criticize government (only eight per cent have written letters to the editor, for example). Canadian Christians may know very little about the issues, needs and opportunities of community engagement with newcomers.

Our government needs to be aware of, and willing to resolve, those points of friction that create unnecessary suffering for refugees — and the volunteers who serve them.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical organization that promotes justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

 
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