Confusion over Syrian refugee sponsorships

A Syrian refugee girl sits with her brother at a makeshift shelter in Bar Elias, a town in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Photo: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
A Syrian refugee girl sits with her brother at a makeshift shelter in Bar Elias, a town in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Photo: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
Published February 3, 2015

Early in January, the Canadian government pledged to welcome an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years.

The announcement answered a call from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for nations to help settle 100,000 refugees from Syria by 2016. It was also seen as a response to criticism from refugee advocates and opposition parties that Canada was not doing enough to meet the needs of more than three million Syrians who have fled violence in their country. In December, Canada had committed to resettle only 1,300 people.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said that he expected that about 60 per cent of the 10,000 would be sponsored privately by sponsorship agreement holder organizations, which include many church groups; the remaining 40 per cent would be government-assisted refugees. “Roughly, the same proportions we’ve always had,” he said, in a report in the Globe and Mail.

That comment caused a stir among sponsorship agreement holder groups, who told the Anglican Journal that they were not consulted before the minister suggested that they should be responsible for sponsoring an additional 6,000 refugees over the next three years. They also noted that it represented a sudden shift away from the principle of “additionality” that has been a part of the private sponsorship program since it was created in 1979. “It’s always been that government announces what they are going to do, that’s their commitment; they fill those spots and then we fill those additional spots as we’re able,” said Alexandra Kotyk, a member of the Sponsorship Agreement Holder Council, sponsorship director of the Toronto-based Anglican United Refugee Alliance (AURA), part of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) refugee network. “To have us be part of the [government’s] pledge is pretty unprecedented.”

On the matter of proportions of sponsorship that would be private and government assisted, a source at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), who offered background information, said that Alexander mentioned “only notional numbers” for the commitment and that the government would be “very flexible through time as the situation evolves.”

Refugee advocates have also asked for some assurance that this will indeed be 10,000 refugees over and above the number of refugees Canada regularly takes in annually. In an open letter to Alexander, the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) expressed concern that the commitment would fall within existing resettlement numbers. “This would mean that the commitment to the Syrian refugees is at the expense of other refugees, who are also very much in need,” said the CCR.

Bill Brown, a CIC media relations officer, told the Journal in an email that “those commitments would be accomplished within the levels plans that the government tables in Parliament each year.” The 2015 plan estimated that the total number of refugees accepted would be between 11,000 and 13,500.

Refugee advocates have pointed out that the 2015 estimates are not higher than the 2014 estimate of between 11,800 and 14,200 refugees.

The CCR also urged the government not to restrict its commitment to Syrian refugees to religious minorities, which it said would “mean discriminating against Muslim refugees in need of resettlement.”

When the Journal raised that issue, the response from CIC was that the UNHCR, which works with the international core group on Syria, has identified eight priority groups for resettlement. These include women and girls at risk, people with physical protection needs (including persecuted ethnic and religious minorities), and sexual minorities. The email added that “Canada’s commitments give priority to the most vulnerable, for which-as Minister Alexander has said-‘we will not apologize.’ ”

Don Smith, chair of the refugee working group for the diocese of Ottawa and also part of PWRDF’s refugee network, wondered if the government would lift a restriction on another type of sponsorship, which allows a group of five individuals to collectively sponsor a refugee. In recent years, groups of five have only been allowed to sponsor people who already have a UNHCR refugee status determination document, he explained. “Coming out of Syria, it is impossible [to get this determination] because UNHCR is so overloaded, all they are doing is registering people.” Allowing groups of five to sponsor will take a lot of burden off Sponsorship Agreement Holders, he said.

The CCR letter also asked the government to consider introducing special measures such as allowing family members of Syrian Canadians to come to Canada with temporary resident permits, with the possibility of applying for permanent residence later.

Editor’s note: The description of our source at CIC has been edited for accuracy.


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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