Internally displaced Syrian children walk together at a camp near the Turkish border in Atmeh, Syria. Syrian refugees have been the greatest recipient of Canada’s refugee program in the last five years, with two-thirds ending up in the privately-sponsored refugee program. CNS photo/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters

Crisis could bring spike in refugee backlog

  • July 15, 2020

COVID-19 has almost completely choked off the flow of refugees to Canada, which has refugee sponsors worried about the backlog building up as they wait for travel restrictions to ease so they can start again helping new arrivals ease into jobs, apartments and communities.

Between March 18 and July 2, just 316 privately sponsored refugees — emergency cases — arrived in Canada. That compares with 2,712 that arrived between New Year’s and March 17. Under normal circumstances, the Archdiocese of Toronto alone would have resettled more refugees over the last four months than the entire country has welcomed since the COVID lockdown.

“In a normal year we would have welcomed somewhere between 100 and 300 refugee families (between 225 and 650 people) during the March to July period. This year it is zero,” said Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto director Deacon Rudy Ovcjak in an email.

The COVID-squeeze on refugee arrivals has hit just as it seemed Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) was making progress on clearing an enormous backlog of applications to sponsor refugees. Since 2012 official Sponsorship Agreement Holders — most of them churches or other faith groups — have had to accept limits on how many applications they could submit. Ottawa said it needed to slow the pace of new applications so it could dig out from a mountain of unprocessed applications. When Ahmed Hussen was Minister of Immigration before the last election, he promised that after clearing the backlog the government would get average refugee processing times under 12 months. 

“Sadly, this will erase much of the recent progress that Immigration Canada has made in reducing the backlog of privately-sponsored refugee cases,” said Ovcjak.

Through the COVID period, sponsors have been free to submit applications and in-Canada processing of those applications has continued. But the process stops there. The final stage in which the applications are sent to overseas visa posts, where interviews with refugees are arranged, is suspended.

The two United Nations agencies that work with Canada on refugee resettlement, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Refugee Agency, have recently announced they will restart refugee travel. But “refugee resettlement will only fully resume once conditions allow,” said a spokesperson for IRCC.

When arrivals do restart, sponsors are going to have to figure out how to handle the 14-day quarantine.

“The department will send a travel resumption letter to each sponsor to ensure they have appropriate measures in place to support the refugees upon arrival,” said IRCC media relations officer Rémi Lariviére in an email. “This includes the requirement for sponsors to have a quarantine plan to enable the refugees to self-isolate during their first 14-days in Canada, in compliance with the Quarantine Act.” 

That’s no small thing, said Ovcjak.

“The quarantine will likely affect not only the newcomers but their sponsor who will greet them at the airport. Many of these sponsors are newly-arrived immigrants themselves who cannot afford to take two weeks away from work,” Ovcjak said. “This will also present a serious challenge for our parish refugee committees, whose members are skewed toward an older demographic.”

The sponsorship community is worried by backlogs that never did go away.

“The backlogs are still there,” said Citizens for Public Justice refugee expert Stephen Kaduuli. “Although they have made some slight improvement through technology and additions to the personnel and various visa posts — some small improvement — the complaints are still there.”

In a recent report on the health of the private sponsorship system, Kaduuli reveals that as of July 31, 2019, the actual wait time for a refugee sponsored through a Sponsorship Agreement Holder was well over two years (27 months). For other parts of the private sponsorship system the wait times are nearly as long — 23 months for community sponsors and 19 months for “Group of Five” sponsors.

The backlog and the wait times are more than an annoyance, said Canadian Council for Refugees executive director Janet Dench.

“It’s a big problem,” she said. “There are huge concerns for sponsors about people they have been sponsoring, sometimes for years in the process, who haven’t arrived. That’s a problem that precedes COVID-19.”

Given COVID, Canada won’t hit its overall immigration target of 341,000 in 2020. Dench would like to see Ottawa fill some of that gap by expediting travel for already-approved refugees. Many sponsored refugees had already been issued visas before the COVID travel restrictions came down.

“Refugees coming in are part of what Canada needs,” said Kaduuli. “We have an aging population. We need labour. We need to boost our economy through work, through more income, through more jobs.”

Many refugees have found work on the front lines of the fight against COVID, Kaduuli said.

“We should recognize them for that. We should encourage immigration because we see the positive things it has done during this time of crisis,” he said.

Less than 15 per cent of the 1.1 million immigrants the Canadian government was planning to welcome between 2020 and 2022 are refugees. Almost two-thirds (63.4 per cent) of sponsored refugees arriving in Canada in 2019 were privately sponsored.

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