A Syrian refugee child cries at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. Refugees from the Middle East make up about 75 per cent of refugees in the files of the Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto. CNS photo/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters

Frustration mounts in refugee waiting game

  • January 13, 2013

TORONTO - The 166 Toronto-area parishes with active refugee committees could open a new, more hopeful chapter on up to 700 refugee stories in 2013.

While 700 arrivals is technically feasible, the Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto believes it’s probably more realistic to think in terms of about 400 refugees landing at Pearson International Airport in 2013. Still, it’s a big increase over the 150 welcomed in 2012.

The Office of Refugees has more than 2,500 refugees in its files with sponsors waiting, 75 per cent of them from the Middle East. The massive refugee crisis triggered by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened up a new era in Catholic refugee sponsorship as parishes reached out to rescue Iraqi Christians who had been expelled from homes, neighbourhoods and villages where they had lived for centuries.

After Citizenship and Immigration Canada cleared its backlog of Damascus-based refugee cases in 2009, there was great hope for an efficient system that could get UNHCR-certified refugees on a plane to Toronto within a year. But civil war in Syria in 2012 has dashed those hopes. Canada’s visa post in Damascus has shut down and wait times for refugees have shot up to two years and longer.

The Hermez family constitutes six of the 2,500 refugees ORAT has on file. Their sponsor is Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins, who launched the process to bring the Hermez family to Canada in the summer of 2010. There’s hope the mother, father, daughter and three sons will leave Beirut for Toronto this year. They have relatives who have managed to make it to Toronto as refugees.

For the Hermez family, as for many others, the last remaining step is a stamp on a visa that’s already sitting on somebody’s desk.

ORAT executive director Martin Mark worries about the frustration parishes face as waits get longer. But he worries more about the frustration and despair of refugees.

Parishes have made serious commitments of volunteer time and money to be refugee sponsors. As the process drags on it will be tempting for parishioners to question whether they should have made those commitments to other worthy projects, Mark said.

“They don’t see why this delay happens. It makes them feel bitter and frustrated,” Mark said. “This is the biggest part of our work now, to keep the spirit alive and explain things to them. Most of our parishes are doing excellent work to connect with the refugee while the refugee is overseas. That is not only good for the parish, to keep the spirit, but also good for the refugee. For them (refugees) it’s really frustrating and it’s about their life.”

Wait times aren’t the only problem refugee sponsors will face in 2013, said Janet Dench, Canadian Council for Refugees executive director. With major cutbacks to refugee health insurance church refugee committees are going to face serious medical, dental and pharmaceutical bills they hadn’t counted on.

In Winnipeg the ecumenical refugee ministry Hospitality House is taking the government to court over changes to the Interim Federal Healthcare Program that will leave church sponsors holding the bag for everything from prosthetics to heart medication. The churches argue that Citizenship and Immigration has unilaterally changed the terms of a contract they signed with refugee sponsors.

The case is likely to be heard in Winnipeg in April or June, according to Hospitality House’s lawyer David Matas.

The sudden health care burden isn’t the only challenge refugee sponsors will face.

“It’s getting more difficult for sponsorship groups to sponsor the refugees they want to sponsor,” said Dench. “There are going to be opportunities if you’re happy to go with the government program, but some people find that alienating because they don’t get a say in which refugee they get.”

Citizenship and Immigration Canada has made Christian Iraqis a priority, and for now that priority meshes well with Catholic refugee sponsorship priorities across Canada. But half the refugees in the world are in Africa, and in the longer term parishes are unlikely to limit their interest to just one region.

“It is very difficult for refugees to be sponsored out of Africa,” points out Dench. “Most of the groups the governments have been prioritizing have not been African refugees.”

Immigration Canada has put a moratorium on new sponsorships from most of Africa while it tries to clear the backlog. But this doesn’t address the unrealistic, strict limits on three out of four Canadian visa posts in Africa which created the backlog, said Dench.

Canada plans to admit somewhere between 24,000 and 29,000 people on humanitarian grounds in 2013, 14,500 of them refugees. That’s 10.5 per cent of the total number of immigrants to Canada. The numbers are consistent with Canada’s tradition of resettling about one in every 10 resettled refugees in the world. While the government ratchets up anxiety about “bogus refugees” and a “broken system,” the percentage of immigrants to Canada who are refugees is not growing, Dench said.

Dench agrees with Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney when he describes the system as broken.

“There’s a lot of truth to the system being broken, but the parts of the system that are of highest concern to us are not getting a lot of attention,” she said.

Refugees who already have permanent residence in Canada are waiting years for their children to join them, said Dench.

“That’s a far more compelling problem in the system, broken element in the system, than that it maybe takes too long to remove someone who perhaps doesn’t need Canada’s protection but who is maybe fulfilling an important role in Canada’s economy in the meantime, doing no harm whatsoever,” Dench said.

Refugee system reforms Kenney rolled out over 2012 are heading to court. There will be Charter challenges to Kenney’s plan to speed up the process for people who claim refugee status on arrival in Canada. The Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act set strict time limits on the application process, mandating Immigration and Refugee Board hearings within 60 days, or even 30 — 45 days for people who come from 27 designated countries. That’s not enough time to assemble documents, marshal translators, go through physical and psychological examinations with traumatized clients, says the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers Association. CARL also calls the list of Designated Countries of Origin arbitrary, unfair and unconstitutional.

The lawyers are just waiting for a test case.

Citizenship and Immigration of course is ready to defend the new system.

“The new system does not change in any respect the nature of these first instance hearings, which are conducted in a manner consistent with principles of due process and natural justice and meet the requirements of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” the CIC media relations department wrote to The Catholic Register.

Imposed, artificial haste will make Canada’s refugee determination system prone to mistakes, said Canadian Sanctuary Network founder Mary Jo Leddy. Mistakes will lead to crises. The crisis cases will result in refugees seeking sanctuary in churches.

“Desperate people will turn to the churches for help, as they should,” Leddy wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

“Sanctuary is primarily an act of faith. It is not primarily a political act. Over the years it has taken place under Liberal and Conservative governments. Over the years, almost every case of a refugee in sanctuary has been resolved with the co-operation and approval of the government.”

As Canadian Catholics become more aware of refugees and more involved in their lives, ministry to refugees becomes the yardstick of significant moral growth in the Church, said Leddy.

“We are becoming a Samaritan Church…. Welcoming refugees is part of our broader pro-life commitment,” she said. “Most refugees come to this country for one reason only. They want to live.”


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