Red tape slows Iraqi refugees’ entry to Canada

  • July 24, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Toronto’s Catholics are on pace to double the number of refugees they sponsor in 2008, but they face increasing frustration over Iraqi refugees tangled in red tape in Damascus.

It now takes the better part of two years for privately sponsored Iraqi refugees to be processed through the Canadian consulate in Damascus.

Catholic Cross Cultural Services of Toronto, encouraged by Archbishop Thomas  Collins, committed to doubling the number of refugees Toronto’s parishes and religious communities sponsor this year. The ambitious goal was set in response to two million Iraqis trapped outside their own country, most in Syria and Jordan.

At the same time the government of  Canada said it would double the number of Iraqi refugees it plans to resettle in Canada in 2008. But since January this year the average processing time for privately sponsored refugees applying to the consulate in Damascus has increased by four months.

“The only thing I can tell you is we still are committed to meeting those targets,” said Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Karen Shadd.

The Canadian government reduced refugee targets for other parts of the world in order to increase its Iraqi refugee goal from 900 in 2007 to between 1,800 and 2,000 this year.

“It is unconceivable that these people (Iraqi refugees) do not receive priority clearance,” said Liberal member of Parliament Andrew Telegdi by e-mail.

At the height of the Kosovo war, Telegdi noted, Canada brought 5,000 refugees to Canada in a matter of weeks. And during the Velvet Revolution of 1956 against Soviet influence over Hungary, 40,000 Hungarian refugees came to Canada in less than a year.

“The problem is the lack of political will,” Telegdi said.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley and her staff were unavailable for comment.

While processing times have increased, wait times for government-assisted refugees have dropped to an average of seven months. By contrast it takes 21 months for Damascus to clear 80 per cent of its cases under the private sponsorship program.

So far 29 refugees have been welcomed by Toronto’s Catholic community in 2008, compared with 35 for all of last year. But none of this year’s arrivals have been Iraqis. Toronto’s religious communities and parishes have offered to sponsor 14 Iraqis so far this year. The archdiocese offered to take on four in 2007, but none have arrived.

Cross Cultural Services has initiated sponsorship applications for 73 refugees from hot spots around the world in the first six months of 2008. There were 51 refugee sponsorships submitted through Catholic Cross Cultural Services in 2007.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has referred 1,289 qualified Iraqi refugee cases to Canada for consideration so far this year. High Commissioner António Guterres has  expressed frustration at the slow pace of departures from the region.

Security and background checks are often blamed for the delay.

The UNHCR would like to see more ambitious targets for receiving countries, including Canada, said UNHCR Canada resettlement officer Michael Casasola.

Cross Cultural Services sponsorship program boss Martin Mark said it will take political will to get Iraqi refugees onto Canadian shores.

“The bureaucrats are doing their job,” Mark said. “They are not as sensitive as a politician has to be.”

The story of Iraqi Christians in exile while civil war rages has re-ignited enthusiasm for refugee sponsorship among Toronto parishes, Mark said. Mark has gone from trying to cajole parishes into making a commitment to fielding calls from parishes that want more information about sponsorship.

That doesn’t mean that Toronto parishes are only interested in helping Iraqi Christians, he said.

“We never ask the religion of the people. It would be against our principles,” said Mark.

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