Prime Minister Justin Trudeau helps a young Syrian refugee try on a winter coat after she and her family arrived in Toronto from Beirut in December 2015. CNS photo/Mark Blinch, Reuters

Refugee sponsors brace for budget crunch

  • June 20, 2018

The churches that sponsor refugees may be nervous about their budgets over the next three years, but they will probably get through the coming flood of refugee arrivals, according to the organization that represents sponsorship agreement holders across the country.

“We’re all interested in making this work,” said Brian Dyck, council chair for the Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association. “As one person with the IRCC (Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada) said, if this program loses its integrity it’s going to fold. I don’t want to see that. I think this is an important part of Canada.”

This year about 18,000 privately sponsored refugees will arrive in Canada — three to four times the number that have typically arrived in recent years. And arrival numbers will remain high through 2020 while the government clears a backlog of refugees who’ve been stuck, sometimes for years, waiting to meet their Canadian sponsors.

When the sponsoring agencies took on these cases they set aside money, as required by their agreements with IRCC, to support their refugees through the first year of life in Canada. Many of those agencies, the majority of them faith-based, have seen costs balloon since they submitted their applications — in part because of inflation and low rental vacancy rates, but also because of a new set of IRCC rules in force since Jan. 1.

In early June, 20 Catholic SAHs (sponsorship agreement holders) met to discuss the coming financial crunch, among other issues. The new rules for private sponsors force them to provide financial support equivalent to the monthly cheques doled out by Ottawa to government-sponsored refugees and reduce incentives for refugees to find work and become self-sufficient, Brian Dwyer of the Catholic Sponsorship Council told The Catholic Register.

“It’s become more of an entitlement program,” Dwyer said.

It’s not the sponsor’s fault it has taken years for the government to get the refugees to Canada, and the increased costs that come from that delay shouldn’t be the sponsor’s problem, Dwyer said.

“Lengthy processing times have resulted in older cases being subject to increased costs,” said a note sent from the Catholic Sponsorship Council representing 20 SAHs to the IRCC the week of June 4. “This approach has resulted in an unjust, unplanned and significant financial burden to sponsors and a practical impossibility for cases that were submitted prior to the effective date of the new SAH agreement.”

While the new rules are more specific in an attempt to be clear to both sponsors and refugees, not much has really changed, according to the IRCC.

“Most of the obligations and expectations on private sponsors already exist,” the IRCC’s Shannon Ker said in an e-mail. “The new (Jan. 1) agreement helps to ensure that SAHs have a clear understanding of their obligations.”

Private sponsors have complained about a new expectation that sponsors’ monthly cheques must be equal to the government’s Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP) rates. While those rates have risen, they are designed to be equivalent to provincial welfare rates, which was the standard under the old agreement.

The new deal also makes it clear the adult children of refugee families have a right, if they choose, to move out of the family home and go it alone. An 18-year-old might have been 15 when the application was submitted and the sponsors never envisioned setting up a second apartment, let alone the monthly stipend. 

Dyck doesn’t think many adult children of refugees are going to opt to live alone on what amounts to welfare. But if it does happen, the sponsor takes the hit.

Private sponsors have long taken pride in their ability to get refugees working and self-sufficient much quicker than government sponsored refugees. Using the network of parishioners and volunteers, private sponsors are often able to get refugees working within weeks and self-sufficient within months. Once they’re earning 150 per cent of the mandated RAP stipend, sponsors can stop writing cheques.

But the new government rules emphasize that refugees don’t have to throw themselves into a survival job the minute they hit the tarmac. If they need more time to acquire language skills, deal with health issues and search for the right kind of work, they’ve got a full year of support guaranteed.

If a refugee is actually refusing to work when appropriate opportunities have been presented, it might be a health of even a mental health issue, said Dyck, who runs the sponsorship program for the Mennonite Central Committee in Winnipeg. 

The IRCC is willing to help sponsors work with refugees on those issues, but the bottom line is that sponsors can’t shape the refugee’s first year to such an extent that newcomers are forced into situations not of their choosing.

“Some SAHs have been accused of coddling the newcomers. One colleague of mine called them ‘helicopter sponsors.’ Others have been too hands off, or perhaps even manipulative and controlling. Striking the balance is difficult,” Dyck said.

The cost of sponsorship

The cost of sponsoring a refugee family varies across the country depending on the community’s living costs and the size and composition of the family. In many cases, donations of used furniture, cooking utensils and clothing can off-set cash outlays. 

For a family of four, with two adults and two high-school age children, the federal government mandates minimum start-up costs for all provinces outside of Quebec at $6,660 to cover staple foods, clothing, basic household needs, furniture, bed linens and utility installations.

Monthly income support covers a basic needs allowance, shelter and communication. For a family of four in Ontario that would come to $1,260. But the shelter allowance in the Resettlement Assistance Program comes to just $744. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reports the average three-bedroom apartment in the Greater Toronto Area is $1,515 per month. The IRCC will help out with an extra $200 when rents exceed the official allowance.

Sponsors are also expected to provide monthly transit passes. Assuming two adults and two children over the age of 12, Toronto Metropasses would cost $5,784 for the year.

At the minimum rates, the costs for one year will come to $27,564. But on housing costs alone, the real cost of supporting a refugee family of four will exceed the official rates.

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