Africa refugee processing inadequate

  • November 6, 2009
{mosimage}Canadian visa officials in Accra, Ghana, have informed the Office of Refugees of the Archdiocese of Toronto it will probably take more than two years to unite a 14-year-old boy with his family in Toronto.

The extreme delay is typical of a Canadian refugee system that simply isn’t doing its job in sub-Saharan Africa, said ORAT executive director Martin Mark.

“It’s a shame,” Mark said. “Basically, it’s a lack of accountability.”
When The Catholic Register reported Sept. 20 on the fate of a 14-year-old Tamil refugee living alone in Ghana, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had designated the boy a “person of concern” and ORAT had requested he be given “urgent need of protection” status under Immigration Canada’s internal rules.

Five months after Prince of Peace parish in Scarborough, along with the boy’s uncle, submitted an application to privately sponsor the boy, the visa post in Accra has now decided against invoking either the “guardianship protocol” for protection of children or the “urgent need of protection” protocol to expedite the boy’s passage to Canada.  Without those protocols, it takes an average of 25 months for Canada’s office in Accra to fill out the paperwork and conduct the two interviews necessary to issue a visa to a refugee.

The boy’s uncle has requested his family name be kept out of the newspaper for fear of consequences to any surviving members of the family still in Sri Lanka. The family in Toronto has not heard from family in Sri Lanka since before the end of that country’s civil war in May.

News of Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s refusal to expedite the case of a child refugee in Accra comes on the heels of a Nov. 1 report by the Canadian Council for Refugees that shows Canada’s visa post in Nairobi, responsible for refugee cases from 18 countries in Eastern and Central Africa, takes an average of three-and-a-half years to process privately sponsored refugees. Half the refugees wait longer than 42 months to be resettled, while some have waited more than five years.

The Jesuit Refugee Service in Nairobi frequently deals with refugees in despair waiting to be reunited with family or begin a new life in Canada, Angelika Mendes of the JRS for Eastern Africa told The Catholic Register by e-mail. Wait times for refugees referred to Canada are much longer than wait times for the United States, she said.

“Agencies like Mapendo refer (refugees) to the Joint Voluntary Agencies who go through the American embassy, where the resettlement process takes much less time, around six months in most cases,” she said.

While Nairobi is the worst of all of Canada’s visa posts in terms of processing times, said Mark, the problem applies generally to sub-Saharan Africa.

Though Canada has 18 missions in sub-Saharan Africa, only eight issue visas of any kind and only four process refugee cases. These four visa posts must cover 50 countries where people speak dozens of languages and there are refugees from a dizzying array of conflicts.

“According to CIC (Citizenship and Immigration Canada), refugees are in the top priority for processing,” said Canadian Council for Refugees executive director Janet Dench in an e-mail. “The evidence however, suggests that in practice they are not top priority. There has been a huge increase in temporary work visas issued in recent years, which is a response to Canadian employers who want foreign workers to fill jobs. They don’t wait five years. So why are refugees waiting five years if they are top priority?”

In 2008 Mark asked CIC national headquarters why it takes eight to nine months for the visa post in Nairobi to open a letter. He never received an answer.

CIC officials told The Register the Nairobi post faces difficult working conditions.

“Arranging interviews for applicants is challenging given the large geographic area served by the Nairobi office, poor communications infrastructure, as well as regional security issues. In the current year, 40 per cent of PSRs (privately sponsored refugees) scheduled for interview did not appear,” a CIC spokesperson said in an e-mail.

CIC also cites a “high level of fraud” in applications received in Africa.

Toronto Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis claims the Conservative government simply doesn’t want refugees of any kind, and notes that the worst processing times for both family reunification class immigrants and for refugees are in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.

Canada accepted 32,685 refugees in 2004. That number was down to 21,860 in 2008. Over the same period the number of temporary workers admitted to Canada went from 90,000 to 192,000.

Visa posts deal with work permits, student visas, tourism visas and business travellers first.

“If the rate of temporary residence applications rises, it has an impact on the resources available to process applications for permanent residence,” said a CIC spokesperson.

For Catholic parishes in Toronto the Africa refugee processing times are not a minor problem. Mark frequently has to try to explain delays of four years and more to parishes that have signed sponsorship agreements and are still waiting to meet the refugees they took responsibility for.

About one-third of the active files at ORAT are for African refugees. Lost and unanswered mail, long delays, frequent requests to re-file documents that have already been submitted increases costs for ORAT and limits the number of new refugees parishes and religious communities in Toronto can agree to sponsor, said Mark.

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