Canada resettled more refugees in 2018 than any other country according to a United Nations refugee agency. Most of them were resettled through the four-decade old Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program. The internationally-acclaimed program has facilitated over 327,000 refugee resettlements and won the people of Canada the UN Nansen Medal.
But there are many inherent barriers in refugee sponsorship. In 2018, Rudy Ovcjak of the Archdiocese of Toronto felt frustrated by the backlog of 45,000 privately sponsored refugees. Debra Simpson, a member of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told a Parliamentary Committee hearing that:
“People get very excited about this program. They respond because they know that someone’s in need, and then they wait. Very often, as a sponsorship agreement holder, I am not able to explain to the sponsoring group why this is taking so long. So people move on. It’s true. We have seen a decline in interest in the program primarily related to the fact that it has taken so long for people to arrive, and there’s no good explanation.”
CPJ has released two reports examining the challenges refugee sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs) face in resettling refugees. In 2014, Private Sponsorship and Public Policy reported on the political barriers to church-connected refugee resettlement in Canada. A Half Welcome, released in 2017, found that the top concerns of SAHs were long application wait times and backlogs, complexity of the application process, sponsorship allocation limits, and the burden of travel loans. They recommended that the government process applications and resettle refugees in a timely manner; clear backlogs at global visa posts; provide a multi-year immigration levels plans; and waive travel loan repayments for all refugees. At the time, the Catholic Register reported that average processing times for privately sponsored refugees varied wildly. Church-sponsored refugees in Iraq arrived in Canada within 15 months while refugees in Ethiopia and South Africa had to wait for averages of 69 months.
This year, on World Refugee Day, CPJ published Continuing Welcome, a progress report on the impact of advocacy efforts since the release of A Half Welcome. In this report, CPJ has tracked progress on delays in refugee sponsorship, the government’s immigration levels, and program monitoring.
Since 2017, there has been a marked improvement in the processing of applications and clearing the backlogs. Currently, there is no difference in processing times of Syrian and non-Syrian cases. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) aims to reduce the processing times to an average of 12 months. However, backlogs still do persist exists and the 12-month goal of processing applications has not been achieved. Erin Pease of the Catholic Diocese of Hamilton has said that, “a key problem that must be rectified is ensuring that processing timelines for all PSR applicants are in closer alignment, irrespective of the country of asylum in the world where a refugee finds herself.”
Canada had not provided multi-year levels immigration plans since 2014. CPJ and other stakeholders have been advocating for their return. As stated in A Half Welcome, multi-year figures help SAHs plan for how many applications they will be able to handle in advance. A day after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, IRCC released the 2020-2022 Immigration Levels Plan in which Canada will aim to settle 49,700 refugees this year. However, the intake target may not be achieved due to the prevailing global COVID-19 pandemic.
While SAHs support the monitoring of private sponsorships by IRCC, it does present challenges for them. It can be difficult for sponsors to demonstrate that they are meeting their financial obligations since some of their support is in-kind. Monitoring adds to SAHs’ workload. Many of them are understaffed and rely on volunteers.
In Continuing Welcome, CPJ presents a list of policy recommendations that will address these ongoing concerns in Canada’s refugee sponsorship program. We call for government to continue reducing processing times and backlogs; to totally waive the loan repayments for all refugees; to further improve communication with stakeholders; and to streamline quality assurance to guard the integrity of sponsorship programs.
Regarded as the global role model for its private sponsorship of refugees, Canada should work with stakeholders such as the SAHs to achieve more fairness in systems that affect the refugees.
On World Refugee Day 2020, CPJ’s published Continuing Welcome: A Progress Report on A Half Welcome and partnered with the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue to develop an online advocacy alert.