Is nothing sacred? – Political barriers to church-connected refugee resettlement in Canada

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There are currently more than 50 million refugees worldwide.  Despite this startling figure, organizations that privately sponsor refugees increasingly face obstacles in the resettlement process due to changes in government policy.  In a recent study by Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), a sample of these organizations participated in a survey and series of interviews where they expressed their concerns with the government’s latest actions.  Their message is clear: new policies adopted by the government threaten the wellbeing of those seeking refuge in Canada, and a different approach is urgently needed to ensure that they receive proper assistance.

Private sponsorship began as a direct result of the huge influx of refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in the late 1970s, which motivated Canadians to assist in their resettlement.  These organizations, known as sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs), commit to support the sponsored refugees financially and emotionally for their first year in Canada.  There are currently 85 active SAHs in Canada which in 2013 were responsible for resettling two thirds of all privately sponsored refugees.  A full 72% of these SAHs are church or church-affiliated groups.  In addition, a report released in 2007 by Citizenship and Immigration Canada found that although the government and SAHs have been equally effective at meeting the immediate needs of refugees, the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program has had more long-term success.  It is clear then that SAHs play a critical role in the resettlement of refugees.

The CPJ study found that the most pressing impediment to the resettlement process was the long wait times between submission of a sponsorship application and the refugee’s actual arrival in Canada.  These delays were largely attributed to inefficiencies in the processing system, with one respondent asserting that the “people designing the [application] forms have no understanding of the realities faced by refugees.”  As tens of thousands of dollars must be raised to support the refugee family during their first year, it is crucial to maintain momentum among the sponsoring group, and this becomes more difficult the longer it takes for the family to arrive.

Another major concern identified was the 2012 cuts to the Interim Federal Health (IFH) program.  This program traditionally provided refugees and asylum seekers with health care coverage until they were eligible for provincial coverage.  As a result of the cuts, many refugee claimants are now without any medical coverage.  Despite the fact that privately sponsored refugees arrive in Canada as permanent residents, not refugee claimants, they still suffered the loss of coverage for such medical expenses as vision care, emergency dental work, mobility devices, and medication.  In response, several provincial governments implemented their own programs to provide some level of assistance.  But the impact of the federal cuts on the PSR program is alarming.  Overall, the additional costs of paying for medical services coupled with potential liability costs have led to a decline in support among SAHs.  Indeed, 32% of church-connected SAHs report that their sponsoring groups have either decreased or ended their involvement in the PSR program completely.

SAHs also cited a disturbing lack of consultation by the government when making changes to refugee policy.  In a recent case, the definition of a dependent child was lowered from 21 years of age and under to 18 years and under.  This means that those 19 and over are no longer eligible to be sponsored with their parents, which could lead to individuals choosing to remain in life-threatening situations rather than leave their children behind.  Additionally, in 2012, restrictions were placed on the total number of refugees that may be privately sponsored to come to Canada, as well as how many may be sponsored from any specific region.  If individuals are unable to sponsor loved ones due to quota restrictions, this puts the entire PSR program at risk as it is often some sort of personal connection that drives private sponsorship.  These unilateral actions suggest that the government is trying to encourage the sponsorship of “only those populations that have political or financial benefit,” according to one respondent.

The case of the Syrian refugee crisis is illustrative of this point.  Last year, it was announced that Canada would accept up to 1300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014.  However, the government claimed responsibility for resettling only 200 of these, with the remaining 1100 to be covered through private sponsorship.  No consultations with SAHs took place to discuss whether they had the capacity to handle these numbers.  One respondent asserted that there is a “trend of increasing the number of privately sponsored allocations and claiming it as government commitment” when it is politically beneficial to do so.  In this case, the government is able to appear as though it is contributing to alleviating the suffering of Syrian refugees while placing the burden on private citizens and SAHs to finance their resettlement.

Most SAHs agree that collective action is their best chance at convincing the government to alter its current exclusionary approach and involve SAHs more meaningfully in discussions concerning refugee policy.  This will require a delicate balance between cooperation and public advocacy.  The top priority of all parties involved should be the safe and successful resettlement of refugees.  This is a feat for which Canada was once well known and commended.  By cooperating with like-minded partners, particularly SAHs, the government can seize this opportunity to reclaim our reputation as a refuge for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Kathryn Teeluck is the Public Justice Intern with Citizens for Public Justice a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa.

Follow Citizens for Public Justice on twitter: @publicjustice

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