A group of Haitians wait to cross the U.S.-Canada border into Quebec from New York. CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Refugee strategy still a work in progress

By 
  • June 27, 2019

OTTAWA -- Canadians should not get too smug about becoming No. 1 in the world for resettling refugees, says the head of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

“I think that it’s a little bit concerning when Canadians are celebrating the fact we’re more than the United States, because the reason we’re more than the United States is an absolutely devastating withdrawal from resettlement by our American colleagues,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. 

A Pew Research Centre study of United Nations refugees data released June 19 showed Canada resettled more refugees than the U.S. in 2018 — 28,000 vs. 23,000. It marks the first time the U.S. has not led the world in refugee resettlement since it passed its Refugee Act in 1980. 

Pew noted the latest numbers  reflect at policy of tighter caps on immigration by the Trump administration.

“There are concerns even the small target the United States government has set is not being reached because of slow processing or an unwillingness to make the processing happen,” Dench said. “We would prefer that Canada would be celebrated because we have increased our settlement commitment rather than because the U.S. has fallen short.”

Dench is also troubled by Canada’s limit of 7,500 government-sponsored refugees. “Our call is to have Canada have an annual target of 20,000,” she said.

Dench added the government should “take the lead” and private sponsorship of refugees — which often involves churches — should be “over and above what the government does on behalf of all Canadians.”

The latest numbers are still  a “good news story for Canada,” said Deacon Rudy Ovcjak, director of the Toronto archdiocese’s Office for Refugees (ORAT). “It reflects the continued and steadfast desire of Canadians to assist suffering humanity.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the private sponsorship of refugees program in Canada that started with the Vietnamese Boat People, Ovcjak pointed out.  

“This was an organic, beautiful response of mercy,” he said. “We have had 40 years of regular Canadians putting their time, talent and treasure towards assisting refugees.”

Some countries are testing it, but it was “birthed in Canada and a successful model,” he said.

“The (private sponsorship) model relies heavily on Canadian families sponsoring their family members from overseas, who meet the definition of a refugee,” he said. “And in our case, we broaden this work through our mission trips, where we go overseas and select refugees who have no family link in Canada and who have little or no hope of being sponsored by the government.”

As an example of this, he and members of the ORAT team will be traveling to Thailand this summer to select some of the many Pakistani Christian refugees for sponsorship by the Church and for resettlement to Canada.

“The U.S. decreased their overseas numbers of the refugees from abroad class and it looks like they’re paying more attention to the inland claimants (those who make a refugee claim on American soil) to address the flow of migrants from the southern border,” said Ovcjak.  “This is parallel to what’s happened in Canada.”

Canada has experienced a significant increase in the number of inland claimants, from 16,055 in 2016 to 55,695 in 2018. 

Ovcjak said the swell of illegal border crossings has “overwhelmed the system, placing tremendous pressure on temporary accommodations in Toronto and Montreal” and is “unfair to all overseas refugees who have waited patiently to have their claim heard.” He worries it “sends the wrong message by rewarding those who jump the queue.”

The Liberal government’s efforts to close the loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement that allows those crossing illegally from the United States to make an asylum claim in Canada when they would be sent back to the United States if they showed up at a legal port of entry shows the government “realized this is a large issue and made an attempt to address it,” he said.

The Canadian Council for Refugees, however, wants Canada out of the Safe Third Country Agreement altogether. 

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