Canada's doors opened to Iraqi refugees

  • March 28, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - While the Canadian government plans to increase the number of Iraqi refugees resettled in Canada by decreasing numbers accepted from other troubled areas, the archdiocese of Toronto has doubled its overall refugee sponsorship targets in recognition of the extraordinary circumstances of approximately 4.5 million displaced Iraqis.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley called a news conference in Vancouver March 19 to announce a doubling of the number of refugees from Iraq Canada will accept in 2008, from about 900 in 2007 to between 1,800 and 2,000 this year. In fact, Citizenship and Immigration preliminary statistics obtained by The Catholic Register indicate Canada resettled 1,120 Iraqi refugees in 2007, if the approximately 200 Iraqi refugees who made it to Canada on their own and applied for refugee status after arriving are counted.

Refugee advocates said the higher targets for Iraqi resettlement do not mean an increase in Canada’s annual intake of about 7,300 refugees from around the world. To accommodate more Iraqis, Afghani, Sudanese, Latin American and other refugees may find themselves waiting longer to get into Canada, said the Canadian Council for Refugees and Catholic Cross Cultural Services of the archdiocese of Toronto.

“This is about them feeling they need to go public with something that makes them look good,” said Janet Dench, Canadian Council for Refugees’ executive director.

A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada conceded that “the increase was off-set by adjustments in targets at other missions, including a smaller target for the visa office in Singapore which in 2008 will be dealing with fewer Burmese (Karen) refugees.”

In contrast, the archdiocese of Toronto plans to submit sponsorship applications for at least 150 refugees in 2008, compared with between 80 and 90 in 2007.

“In that way we keep our commitment to other parts of the world,” said Cross Cultural Service director Martin Mark.

So far the special effort to bring in Iraqi Christian refugees languishing in Syria and Jordan has the support of St. Joseph’s Syriac community in Mississauga, Lithuanian Martyrs parish in Mississauga and the Scarboro Missions Society. To reach its goal the archdiocese is going to have to convince many more of Toronto’s 224 parishes to commit to either fully or partially sponsor a refugee family or individual, said Mark.

Diocesan officials and refugee activists will meet April 16 to map out a strategy.

A full sponsorship for an Iraqi Christian family will cost a parish between $25,000 and $30,000 over a year and requires a volunteer committee ready to help the refugee family enrol children in school, find a family doctor, access English as a second language courses and look for work. For a single refugee the parish would be liable for up to $9,500 in resettlement and living expenses in the first year.

The big hurdle isn’t really money, but rather the willingness of parishes to involve themselves in refugee work, said Mark.

“It is very understandable, but it’s time consuming to sit with parish members, parish councils and parish priests and explain to them that our office, the sponsorship office, is working for the archdiocese in that way and it’s our responsibility to screen the cases. A parish is not alone in a sponsorship now.”

All cases that come to Cross Cultural Services have been screened by either the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or the Canadian government. Last year the UNHCR submitted 21,300 Iraqi resettlement cases to 16 governments. By February 2008 fewer than 6,000 of those cases had actually been resettled.

For half of refugees applying through the Canadian visa office in Damascus, getting through the red tape to get to Canada takes 17 months or more. The UNHCR has been critical of the Canada Border Services Agency for slowing down the process with particularly lengthy background and security checks for refugees applying from the Middle East. Of 1,512 UNHCR pre-screened applications submitted to Canada’s Damascus office in 2007 less than a quarter have actually left Syria or Jordan, said the UNHCR’s Astrid Van Genderen Stort.

There are 70,000 Christian refugees in Syria alone among 2.5 million Iraqi refugees outside Iraq’s borders and another two million inside Iraq.

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