The more than 3.3 million people who have fled the violence in Syria represent overwhelming human need, but the response from Canada has been underwhelming, according to groups working to bring refugees into the country.
In July 2013, Jason Kenney, then the minister of Citizenship and Immigration (CIC), announced a program that made Syrian refugees a ministerial priority and aimed to bring 1,300 people to Canada by the end of 2014 – 200 as government assisted refugees and 1,100 as privately sponsored refugees. But according to figures released by the government in mid-November, only 457 had arrived in Canada, 294 as government assisted and 163, through private sponsorship.
The figures have become a matter of political debate. Kevin Menard, press secretary to current minister Chris Alexander, told the Anglican Journal in early December that the department had approved more than 1,150 Syrian refugees to come to Canada permanently since mid-2013 and pledged that the government “will do more.”
Don Smith, chair of the refugee working group for the diocese of Ottawa, said those numbers don’t make sense to him. Of the privately sponsored refugees, 163 have arrived, and the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders counted 400 that had been submitted. “They are still a long way from approval,” he said.
The government has also reported that 900 Syrians have been granted refugee status by the Immigration and Refugee Board but Smith said that they would have been people already in Canada and should not be counted as a part of the ministerial priority program. Menard did not respond to requests from the Journal for further clarification.
Even if all 1,300 refugees had arrived, Smith says Canada is not doing enough to respond to the crisis. The numbers “are miniscule compared to what the need is.”
Syria’s neighbours are hosting the large majority of the refugees with more than 1.1 million in Lebanon, another 1.1 million in Turkey and 620,000 in Jordan.
Smith acknowledged that the process of bringing refugees to Canada from Syria has been expedited, but said the Canadian government needs to increase the numbers and proportion of refugees it is assisting. The proportion of government assisted cases has fallen far behind its highest levels in 1979 and 1980 when Flora MacDonald was the foreign minister in the Progressive Conservative government and agreed to match private sponsorships, which eventually amounted to 60,000 refugees coming to Canada from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Now, Smith noted, private sponsors are “doing five-and-a half times more than the government.” He questioned whether groups that are currently sponsorship agreement holders and regularly sponsor refugees, could do more. Sponsorship agreement holders across Canada have traditionally been resettling about 4,000 or 5,000 a year, he said. “All of the sponsoring groups have made commitments for the next couple of years at that level, so if there is to be a large increase in the number of privately sponsored refugees, then we’re going to need a large increase in the number of sponsoring groups, and the question is ‘How would we mobilize civil society?”
Ian McBride, executive director of the Anglican United Refugee Alliance (AURA), says that one of the biggest obstacles to finding more groups to sponsor refugees may be the fear that they will not be able to raise enough money to cover the sponsorship liability, about $27,000 for a family of four, and other costs. (AURA represents the Anglican diocese of Toronto and the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada as a sponsorship agreement holder.)
McBride says it’s helpful to remember that most people in most parishes have “two pockets,” one from which they give their regular weekly offering and another from which they are willing to give to a cause such as sponsoring a refugee family. “It’s difficult to say no to the needs of a recently arrived refugee family who have lost all their human rights and often all of their physical possessions,” he said. Raising the money to sponsor a family is “much more possible than people realize.”
Editor’s note: A correction has been made to the number of refugees who came to Canada from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1979 and 1980.