Co-ordinators struggle to stay atop wave of refugee sponsorships

Members of interfaith groups stage a solidarity rally to welcome Syrian refugees to Canada last November in Toronto. Photo: Arindambanerjee/Shutterstock
Members of interfaith groups stage a solidarity rally to welcome Syrian refugees to Canada last November in Toronto. Photo: Arindambanerjee/Shutterstock
Published June 27, 2016

Since the worldwide refugee crisis was catapulted into public consciousness 10 months ago, Canadian Anglicans have helped to resettle around 1,750 refugees, says Suzanne Rumsey, public engagement co-ordinator for The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF).

During this period, around 320 parish and community groups from 15 dioceses across Canada have raised over $20 million to resettle refugees from conflict zones in Syria, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Eritrea, Colombia, Congo and elsewhere.

Rumsey lauded this significant increase in sponsorships as a sign of Anglican hospitality, but she also sounded a cautionary note about the significant strain it has placed on diocesan refugee co-ordinators, many of whom manage large volumes of work with little support.

“The Syrian situation has highlighted the generosity of Canadians and Anglicans…But it is also highlighting the weaknesses in the system, in our own way of administering these sponsorship agreements,” she said.

Fourteen dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada—Saskatoon, Ottawa, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Calgary, Qu’Appelle, Rupert’s Land, Toronto, Huron, Kootenay/APCI, Edmonton, Niagara, British Columbia, New Westminster and Ontario—hold sponsorship agreements with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRC). This gives them access to a specific quota of refugee cases made available through the federal government. (The diocese of Montreal also has a sponsorship agreement, but with the province of Quebec.)

Sponsorship agreements are held by diocesan bishops, but it is the co-ordinators who help interested parishes and community groups apply to sponsor refugee cases. With the sudden surge of interest in refugee resettlement seen over the past 10 months, many co-ordinators have been pushed to the limits of what they can manage on their own.

“[Some] co-ordinators have gone from working on refugee sponsorship from about 10 hours a month to 12 hours a day,” said Rumsey. “Some of these folks…are burning out.”

While a handful of dioceses have established organizations that manage sponsorship—Montreal’s Action Réfugiés, for example, or Toronto’s Anglican United Refugee Association (AURA)—most rely on the efforts of a single volunteer, some of whom have full-time jobs. The roughly 1,750 refugees who have been brought in represent a staggering 678 cases, some of which represent families of as many as 15 people, and some, a single individual.

The fragility of this approach was brought into stark relief earlier this year with the sudden death of Debra Fieguth, the refugee co-ordinator for the diocese of Ontario.

At the time of her death, Fieguth had 13 cases—70 individuals—whose applications she was managing on her own. A refugee family was scheduled to arrive in the diocese, and with the relevant file on Fieguth’s password-protected computer, the sponsoring parish was left scrambling to find the necessary information. While the data was eventually recovered with help from IRC, it was a sobering reminder how much depends on a small number of people.

“Some of the co-ordinators have been feeling kind of out there a bit, not supported,” said Rumsey. “They need more people support to do the job they are doing.”

At the annual meeting of the diocesan co-ordinators, held in Saskatoon, Sask., May 29, the co-ordinators agreed that in addition to celebrating what ordinary parishes have accomplished in raising money and resettling families, a message also needs to be sent to the House of Bishops calling for more support.

“We need the House of Bishops, and bishops in particular whose dioceses hold these agreements, to be supporting us,” said Rumsey. “Be it financially, be it in terms of these questions around administration and care of documentation.”

The Anglican Church of Canada has been a key player in refugee sponsorship since the modern sponsorship system was developed in the wake of the arrival of thousands of Vietnamese “Boat People” following U.S. defeat in Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Anglican dioceses were some of the first to apply to be sponsorship agreement holders, and Rumsey noted that the knowledge that has been built up over the past 35 years is one of the key reasons Anglicans have been able to respond in such large numbers to the current refugee crisis.

“I think these numbers attest to the fact that there was the infrastructure there to be able to move into high gear,” she said. “What I think the challenge is now is sustaining it with, particularly, finite human resources.”

Editor’s Note: Suzanne Rumsey is PWRDF public engagement co-ordinator, not refugee co-ordinator.


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

Keep on reading

Skip to content