Recently, the Centre for Community-Based Research released The Guide to Action, a document that aims to activate church involvement in the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program. It encourages churches to sponsor an individual or family trying to come to Canada from a dangerous situation, an incredibly important first step in the resettlement process, but certainly not the last one.
The guide offers an excellent breakdown for churches not already part of this program of what is involved in sponsoring refugees and why churches are called to this ministry. Sponsorship is instrumental in assisting refugees in Canada. For churches that are looking to get involved, this guide is an excellent place to start. But for those already involved, there is more you can do.
Canada is known for its welcoming policy for newcomers, but with over 50 million displaced people around the world, private sponsors are taking on more work as the federal government starts backing away. The guide points to this lack of government involvement in refugee settlement saying, “Even though the Canadian government provides services to newcomers, there are gaps in which the church can play a role.”
However, beyond just filling the gaps, churches are in a position to demand that the government do more. CPJ’s own research report, “Private Sponsorship and Public Policy,” released in September 2014, shows that churches or church-connected organizations represent 72 per cent of Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH) in the PSR program, making them extremely important contributors on this matter. This puts them in a position to advocate to the government on behalf of refugees.
Section 3 of The Guide to Action explains how churches can do this. It defines advocacy as public support of a particular cause or policy, in this case a stronger refugee settlement program. The guide goes on to explain what is involved in advocacy, such as meeting with political leaders, sending letters and petitions, creating forums, and praying for government officials. After seeing firsthand the many struggles that refugees must face, private sponsors should be inspired to improve this process so more people don’t encounter the same barriers.
CPJ’s research shows that there is a concern about the big picture here. All of the church-connected SAHs we surveyed expressed concern about various issues involving the federal government’s role in the PSR program. Many of these concerns involve long wait times and processing delays. Due to the amount of preparation, both mentally and financially, many SAHs reported that these delays can affect momentum and engagement on the part of churches. “I am aware that our government cannot control some of the delays, but there are others that are within their power to change,” one respondent said.
Another large concern is with the cuts to the Interim Federal Health program, which had previously provided healthcare benefits to refugees. With these cuts, sponsor groups are now paying for medical expenses themselves, costs that have ranged from hundreds to thousands of dollars. However, a more serious diagnosis, such as cancer, could cost tens of thousands and this number changes the willingness or ability of many churches to become sponsors. One respondent said, “We as private sponsors are losing our ability to sponsor those people we wish to help.”
Other causes for concern are limited allocations, visa post-caps, and a lack of government consultation and communication on policy changes. “The government has no humanitarian ears and refuses to hear the pleas of SAHs and chooses to sponsor only those populations that have political or financial benefit,” one respondent said.
The key to a system that is better for both sponsors and refugees is to push for improvements on all these issues. There are many ways that church-connected SAHs are already engaging with the federal government, including private or public letters, participating with the Canadian Council for Refugees, or meeting with politicians. Unfortunately with all these efforts, they still struggle to get a response. However, with more push from churches, this could change.
By advocating we can hope for better communication from the government, more efficiency and overall improvement in the PSR program, and, in the end, a higher quality of life for refugees and families. Once an improved system is in place, it will enable current SAHs to provide better support, encourage more churches to get involved, and hopefully narrow the gaps in the federal government’s services.