An elderly woman from Mosul, Iraq, sits at a refugee camp in Khazer, Iraq. Refugee advocates are demanding the federal government clear the refugee backlog. CNS photo/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters

Demand grows to clear refugee sponsorship backlog

  • June 21, 2017

Canada welcomed World Refugee Day on June 20 with at least 45,000 already-sponsored refugees scattered across the globe, stuck waiting as long as four years while their ready-and-willing sponsors in Canada marvel at the willingness of government bureaucracy to squander their dedication, faith and good will.

“Canada tries to claim a leadership role in terms of refugee issues and they aren’t playing that role,” John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and co-ordinator of Canada4Refugees, told The Catholic Register.

With backing from Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Bishop Douglas Crosby and refugee advocates such as Romero House co-founder Mary Jo Leddy, Canada4Refugees and the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office for Refugees (ORAT) have teamed up to demand Ottawa clear a backlog of 45,000 to 55,000 refugees by June 30, 2018.

Thousands of privately-sponsored refugees have completed the application process, including medical and security checks. They merely await final, formal approval and a plane ticket. At the other end, parishes and families anxiously wait to welcome refugees they committed to guide and support two, three or four years ago.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen has promised to clear the backlog over three years, but the sponsoring groups don’t like the way he’s doing it.

After taking in over 46,000 refugees in 2016 — a 136-per-cent increase over 2015 — Hussen is trying to bring down the number of refugees left in bureaucratic limbo by severely limiting the number of new sponsorships. Instead of processing more refugees faster, the government plans to turn off the tap at source while the pipeline gradually drains over three years.

ORAT director Martin Mark has heard this plan before, starting with a meeting between Sponsorship Agreement Holders and the government 10 years ago in Winnipeg. The plan has never worked.

“That was the first time they said they would have to introduce limits in order to eliminate the backlog and reduce the processing time. At that time we had a backlog of nearly 20,000 refugees,” said Martin.

Canada’s processing times for refugees are among the longest in the world. Among the 18 major refugee resettlement nations, only the United States, with processing times anywhere between two and 10 years, is as bad, according to International Catholic Migration Commission secretary general Msgr. Robert Vitillo.

If Canada wants to reduce its processing times, Vitillo’s Geneva-based Catholic non-governmental organization is willing to help.

“They might want to engage an NGO like ICMC to help with processing applications, as the USA does with its Resettlement Support Centres,” Vitillo wrote in an email to The Catholic Register. The ICMC manages the program for the U.S. in Istanbul and Beirut.

Limiting new applications only transfers the backlog from the government’s books to sponsoring agencies, said Mark. This ORAT went from a quota of nearly 1,000 new applications in 2016 to a limit well below 400. The lower quota for the Archdiocese of Toronto doesn’t mean that either the refugees or the families and parishes trying to sponsor them go away, only that they don’t appear as unprocessed, pending cases.

“To have less than 400 is something which really shocked the whole community — both the sponsors and refugees and ethnic communities who have relatives in refugee camps,” Mark said. “Practically speaking, 300 refugees is nothing for the Archdiocese of Toronto.”

The restrictions on new applications isn’t the only way the government is restricting the addition of new refugees. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship has also restricted the number of refugee visas that may be issued by embassy staff in various regions. In West Africa, the cap has been set at 40 new visas in 2017.

“I mean, 40 spots for the whole of West Africa? It would be more honest to say, ‘You know what? We close the program,’ ” Mark said. “That is really very sad.”

Canada could solve its backlog problem simply by processing more cases faster, said Sewell. In 1956 and 1957, we settled 40,000 refugees from Hungary. Between 1978 and 1980 we took in 62,000 Vietnamese refugees and more than half of them — 34,000 — were privately sponsored. A special “backlog clearance program” launched in 1989 resettled 59,000 refugees over three years with 35,000 arriving in 1991 alone.

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