New refugee policy condemned for lacking compassion

  • April 6, 2011
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason KenneyChanges to Canada's refugee system are being denounced  by the sponsorship community as a cap on compassion and generosity.

A February letter from Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney  to churches and non-profits that sponsor refugees revealed plans to limit the number of refugees Canadians would be allowed to sponsor under the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program. Kenney calls it a "different kind of stewardship." The government is also unilaterally altering its contracts with Sponsorship Agreement Holders, ending all agreements as of Dec. 31, 2011.

"Putting a cap on the number of refugee applications can mean putting a limit on the generosity of Canadians," said Canadian Council for Refugees director Janet Dench.

"(Sponsorship Agreement Holders) put $37 million annually into this program. At this level, we should expect respect from the government in how to manage our program, and how to implement our program," said Martin Mark, director of the Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto.

Kenney claims his department needs to limit applications to clear backlogs and balance the system between targets the government sets each year for refugees and the number of applications submitted. The sponsor organizations say the imbalance is on the government's side.

"The backlog (in Africa) has been created by consistently refusing to have a target that is commensurate with the region," said Dench.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to about 40 per cent of the world's refugees in need of protection, yet Canada maintains only four visa posts in the region with authorization to deal with refugees. There are 10 European visa posts authorized to handle refugee applications.

The government moved last year to limit the number of PSR applications it will accept for its Nairobi visa post.

"With more than 2,000 PSR applications received each year compared with a PSR target of 1,000 in Nairobi in 2011, there are simply more PSR applications in the inventory than can possibly be assessed in any given year," said Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Rejean Cantlon in an email to The Catholic Register. "As a result, Nairobi accounts for almost 40 per cent of the global inventory of PSR cases."

The numbers of refugees that actually make it to Canada have been on the decline. Between 2005 and 2009 (the most recent statistics) refugees who became permanent residents in Canada dropped 37.6 per cent, from 18,563 in 2005 to 11,589 in 2009.

Refugees with sponsors waiting in Canada can wait four, five or even six years for Canada's Nairobi visa post to process an application, said Mark.

"When you say protection delayed, it's protection denied," he told The Catholic Register by cellphone from Accra, Ghana, where he is trying to speed up paper work for refugees with sponsors waiting in the archdiocese of Toronto.

The Nairobi visa post covers applications for 16 countries, including Congo where war has killed more than six million, according to some estimates, in the last 10 years and produced millions of refugees.

"It seems to me a matter of common sense that the number of applications submitted annually should be related to the number of permanent resident visas allocated to the PSR program in the levels plan I submit annually to Parliament," wrote Kenney. "It is, therefore, my intention to implement a collective cap on annual submissions by (Sponsorship Agreement Holders)."

"The government has frequently made it clear that they would prefer it if private sponsors took the lead from the government rather than setting their own priorities," said Dench.

The private sponsorship program was created in the 1980s when churches and other groups reached out to sponsor large numbers of Vietnamese boat people. It was sponsors, rather than government, which originally determined the numbers of refugees that came to Canada under the program.

For the sponsorship community, backlogs in Nairobi are the most pressing issue.

"Nairobi covers a region where there are huge numbers of refugees, and they're in very difficult circumstances and in need of a permanent solution," said Dench. "We've got Canadians who are willing to offer that solution. And yet, the government refuses to respond."

About one-third of privately sponsored refugees are sponsored by Catholics. The legal liability sponsors undertake for each refugee is just shy of $12,000. Mark estimates about 10,000 volunteers across Canada are actively involved, from contributions of pots and pans to help a refugee family cook its first meal in Canada to signing them up for English classes.

"It's in our interest that this program should be manageable," said Mark. "And it is we who say this is not feasible any more."

Rather than a global cap, Mark believes each Sponsorship Agreement Holder should negotiate an annual plan with Immigration Canada. The ministry should determine the proportion of applications to be processed at each visa post based on applications from private sponsors, not an arbitrary limit, he said.

"The department has a simple job, just to follow the applications, proportionally," said Mark. "Equity is very important to us."

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