St. Gertrude’s parishioner Margaret Cirtwell meets Sudanese refugee Abdul Karim Mohammed at Pearson International Airport. Photo by Michael Swan.

Refugee backlogs ‘unacceptable’

  • August 21, 2014

It is unacceptable that Canada has a backlog of almost 21,000 sponsored refugees waiting to see if they can come to this country, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander told The Catholic Register.

Alexander promised that wait times to process refugee claims made from outside Canada — it takes 62 months to bring a refugee to Canada from Pakistan — will improve this year.

The 20,969 refugees in the gov-ernment’s “inventory” of privately sponsored cases represents a 28 per cent decrease from 29,125 backlogged cases on the books on Dec. 31, 2011. That 2011 number was used as justification for limiting the number of applications that churches, community associations and others could submit to Citi-zenship and Immigration Canada.

Over objections from refugee lawyers and the sponsors, Ottawa imposed limits on sponsorships, promising the new rules would clear up the backlog, make the system more responsive and reduce processing times. But three years later processing times are no better, according to Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto executive director Martin Mark.

“Basically, the backlog means slow processing. It means delays, it means the program is not being managed, it means something negative,” said Mark.

But at a citizenship ceremony in Toronto Aug. 19, Alexander said refugee processing times are improving.

“I’m committed to working on that. I have challenged the department to come up with options for reducing those times,” he said. “There are parts of the world where you’ve seen processing times drop this year — such as Nairobi, such as Ankara. You will see processing times come down this year.”

Citizenship and Immigration statistics from March 10 of this year indicate it takes 52 months to issue a visa to an already sponsored refugee at Canada’s Nairobi embassy. In Ankara it’s 23 months.

In 2013 Canada welcomed 4,541 privately sponsored refugees. Even if no new refugees entered the system it would take four and a half years to deal with the ap-plications pending, assuming no marriages or children born among the refugees.

The worst refugee processing times are reported in Islamabad, where it takes 62 months from the time of a completed applica-tion to issue a visa. In Pretoria, South Africa it takes 55 months. In Accra, Ghana, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and Cairo it takes 42 months.

The best processing times reported are 22 months for London and 23 months for Paris, Vienna and Ankara.

It took three years for Sudanese refugee Abdul Karim Mohammed to get from a refugee camp outside Accra to Toronto on Aug. 14. Those three years were just the last stage of his 10 years spent as a refugee.

Mohammed, a north Sudanese Muslim, will share an apartment in Oshawa, Ont. with his old friend from the refugee camp Emanuel Sebit — a South Sudanese Christian. Sebit arrived two months ago after a similar three-year wait. Volunteers from Oshawa’s St. Gertrude Parish are helping the two men with the apartment, a job search, clothes, furniture and advice on how to cope in Canada.

Mark believes a one year pro-cessing time would be acceptable and 18 months barely tolerable. Three years is simply incomprehensible.

Alexander claims security concerns are largely to blame for the delays.

“We also need to be sure that Canada’s security is assured. That is an imperative for all of us here,” he said.

“While we remain generous to refugees, while we continue to settle one in 10 refugees who are resettled every year and while Canada continues to take many of those who don’t have other options — who really are coming from camps or conflicts that are facing the most dire conditions in the world — we have to guard against terrorism, against criminality, that we don’t admit those who have committed war crimes.”

While refugees certainly suffer as they wait, the program’s dys-function also takes a toll on parishes who just want to help a refugee. Money and volunteers are tied up while the parish waits for its refugee to arrive.

St. Gertrude’s started out four and a half years ago hoping to bring an Iraqi refugee family.

“We waited,” said St. Gertrude’s refugee committee member Gerald Cirtwell. “The process took so long they ended up going to the United States.”

Mohammed and Sebit were more than two years on the ORAT caseload before they were assigned to St. Gertrude’s in place of the lost Iraqi refugees.

“We help. We want to help,” said Cirtwell. “It doesn’t matter who it is. With our guys, one is Christian and one is Muslim. It doesn’t really matter. The need is there.” 

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