The government has been in hot water lately over its refugee policies. First for the underwhelming response to refugees fleeing Syria, and then for the refugee health care cuts which were deemed “cruel and unusual” by the Federal Court. Everyone from doctors to lawyers to frontline refugee service providers have spoken out. And now the government faces another set of critics: churches.
During my time at CPJ, I documented the negative impact of recent policy changes on churches and church-connected groups in our report, “Private Sponsorship and Public Policy.” Church-connected sponsorship groups comprise about 72 per cent of Sponsorship Agreement Holders in Canada, and they were also instrumental in launching the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program. In 1978, Mennonite Central Committee worked with the government to negotiate and draft the first formal sponsorship agreement, and since then, more than 200,000 refugees have been privately resettled.
But the program does not just benefit those who find refuge in Canada. It can also be quite politically expedient. For example, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) Minister Chris Alexander was quick to announce that Canada would resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. The government unilaterally delegated the responsibility to resettle 1,100 of these refugees to private sponsors and their volunteer fundraisers. There has been plenty of debate since about whether that number is a sufficient response and whether those refugees are actually on track to arrive in Canada.
This announcement came as a total surprise to at least some in the private sponsorship community. A representative from one national-level church group reported hearing the news on the radio. “It was such a slap in the face,” they said, “We didn’t even find out before the Canadian public.”
There have also been long wait times and processing delays, which can leave both the sponsoring congregation and the refugee family in limbo for several years. One sponsoring group referenced in the report submitted their sponsorship application in 2011, heard that the refugee family had been interviewed in 2012, but have received no updates in the two years since. As a result, the funds raised to support the family of eight are frozen in an account and the group of volunteer sponsors is uncertain whether they will sponsor again in the future.
Especially in non-family-linked cases, community engagement is vital to the private sponsorship program. With the emotional and financial commitments needed to spend a year as the support network for a newcomer family, the impact on momentum for a sponsoring group is immense when a case goes years without movement.
Ninety-two per cent of surveyed churches and church-connected private sponsorship groups expressed concern about the government’s lack of consultation with Sponsorship Agreement Holders. Yet several respondents were careful to differentiate between the departmental and ministerial sides of CIC, indicating that their frustration is with the Minister’s office, not the civil servants who they regularly work with.
The need for a working relationship with CIC places Sponsorship Agreement Holders in a difficult position, especially when many feel that aspects of the sponsorship program are being co-opted for political—not humanitarian—purposes. But representatives from church-connected groups across Canada report being ignored or chastised when they have tried to raise their concerns with CIC quietly or through internal channels.
It’s a classic Catch-22 scenario. Some groups are hesitant to stay silent about the status quo because they believe that current policy shifts are undermining the core of the private sponsorship program and therefore endangering the safety of refugees. Meanwhile, other groups are equally hesitant to raise their concerns publicly for fear that their role as private sponsors—and therefore their ability to help refugees—will be jeopardized.
It seems that Sponsorship Agreement Holders are getting more and more used to questionable promises, but are still unsure of how to most effectively call for change within the program. With the safety of thousands of refugees at stake each year, they have a case that should demand the government’s attention
CPJ’s report, “Private Sponsorship and Public Policy: Political barriers to church-connected refugee resettlement in Canada,” has been featured in the Toronto Star, The Huffington Post and The Banner.