Martin Mark, director of the Office For Refugees of the Toronto archdiocese. Photo by Michael Swan

Blitz could open doors to 700 refugees

  • April 20, 2016

In what will be a record year for refugees finding a new home in the Archdiocese of Toronto, an 18-hour flurry of paperwork may have made the difference for as many as 700 Syrian refugees.

At the end of March, Office For Refugees staff were surprised by an invitation to submit as many applications as possible to sponsor Syrian refugees before April 1.

March 30 and 31, staffers locked the office doors and took the phones off the hook while they assembled final documentation and filled in the pages of forms necessary for each of nearly 700 refugees to be considered for resettlement in Canada under Ottawa’s private sponsorship program.

Before March 30, Toronto’s Office For Refugees — just like almost 100 sponsorship agreement holders nationwide who bring the lion’s share of privately sponsored refugees into Canada — were waiting from word from Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees Canada. The federal ministry assigns each sponsorship agreement holder a quota. Organizations may not apply to sponsor more refugees than the quota they are assigned.

Suddenly, on March 30, Immigration Minister John McCallum announced all privately sponsored refugee applications already in the system before the end of the day March 31 would be allowed in addition to whatever quota is eventually assigned.

“My first assumption was somebody made a typo,” said Office For Refugees director Martin Mark. “I’m sure they will correct it.”

But when Ottawa refused to disown its March 30 memo, staff came to realize they had 18 hours to get in as many applications as they could.

“The whole staff really did their best until midnight and they submitted applications for nearly 700 people,” said Mark.

The government has set an overall target of 17,800 privately sponsored refugees in 2016. Included in that target will be 10,500 spots allocated to sponsorship agreement holders.

“Every effort will be made to finalize the processing of these Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 or early in 2017,” said Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees spokeswoman Nancy Caron in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

The Archdiocese of Toronto has asked for 4,000 of the 10,500 quota spots available. So far there’s been no word from Ottawa.

The quota for privately sponsored refugees does not apply only to Syrian or even other Middle Eastern refugees. Canada has multi-year commitments to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle Congolese, Eritreans and Colombians. In 2015 the government fulfilled commitments to resettle 23,800 Iraqi refugees and 6,500 Bhutanese.

The Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office For Refugees is following up its early-April trip to Lebanon with an end-of-April trip to Ghana to interview Ivorian refugees who have been languishing for years in camps there.

For the first three months of 2016, the flow of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey received special attention as Ottawa assigned extra staff to the visa station in Beirut and laid on government-chartered flights from Jordan and Lebanon. From 250 interviews this spring in Lebanon, Mark is hopeful his office will be able to find places for 150 families in Toronto.

But the open tap from the Middle East is about to come down a notch.

“We know refugees and sponsors are disappointed that expedited processing is not continuing, but the accelerated pace of recent months could not be sustained indefinitely,” said Caron.

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