Five years after the ‘Syrian surge,’ refugee sponsorship levels remain high. Is it enough?

Refugees walk through the Hungarian town of Hegyeshalom on their way to a border crossing with Austria. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/Act Alliance
Published April 14, 2020

In the fall of 2019, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, sent a letter to Jack Palmer-White, Anglican Communion’s permanent representative to the United Nations. The letter, “Refugee Sponsorship: A Canadian Anglican Perspective,” outlined the Anglican Church of Canada’s work in this area since the late 1970s, when the government of Canada implemented its private sponsorship program in response to the so-called “boat people,” refugees from Southeast Asia.

While many Anglican dioceses have held sponsorship agreements for decades, there has been a marked increase in refugee sponsorships since 2015.

According to Nicholls’s letter, from 2015 to late 2019, a total of 5,192 people have been resettled as refugees through Anglican Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs), and an additional 3,558 submitted applications were being processed. She also wrote that at the current rate of sponsorship, “it is expected that dioceses across Canada will continue to submit applications to resettle 400-500 people per year for the next several years.”

Canada was the first country to offer a private sponsorship model for refugees. Sponsorships can be made through an SAH, an incorporated organization that has signed a formal agreement with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). In the case of the Anglican Church of Canada, these SAHs are held at the diocesan level; 15 of 30 dioceses are currently SAHs.

In 2015, news outlets published a photo of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, washed up on a Turkish beach. At the time, Syria’s devastating civil war had been ongoing for four years. Yet Canadian aid groups, including the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), reported a dramatic spike in donations which many traced directly to the publication of the photograph. Canadians were moved not only to donate—that year, interest in refugee sponsorship jumped exponentially.

Before 2015, the majority of dioceses that had a refugee ministry were working on a couple of cases a year and staffed by volunteers, says Suzanne Rumsey, public engagement program coordinator for PWRDF. Rumsey helps coordinate the network of Anglican SAHs across Canada, and organizes a day-long meeting for their coordinators that takes place before an annual government-run SAH conference. “The refugee coordinators…have been up to their eyeballs since 2015, and some dioceses have been able to put more resources, financial and staffing resources, into sponsorship.”

Almost five years later, those numbers haven’t gone back down, Anglicans involved in refugee ministries say.

A supporter waves an image of Alan Kurdi during a protest rally in front of the US Consulate on January 30, 2017, in Toronto. Photo: Arindambanerjee/ Shutterstock

Crest of a wave

Rumsey characterizes this as a “wave” followed by an “echo effect.”

“We have this wave of 25,000 Syrians coming to Canada. They in turn are asking…their sponsors to sponsor family members.”

“Shall we say, the volunteers aren’t jumping out of the woodwork as they did in 2015-16. [Then] they were beating down our doors to get involved,” says Tony Davis, refugee sponsorship coordinator (north) for the diocese of British Columbia. (Davis covers the north end of Vancouver Island, while another volunteer works out of the Victoria office.) At that time, most sponsors were people coming off the street. “Now the sense of urgency is gone…so what we’re seeing now is a greater request for family reunification, extended families. Our focus is on that.”

Along with Syrian refugees, they also have more requests from people originally from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.

Joyce Couvrette has seen a similar shift in the diocese of Ottawa.

Before 2015, the diocese’s refugee ministry was run solely by volunteer Don Smith, a retired rocket scientist. There were a small handful of parishes, “very faithful sponsors, a couple of applications every year, a couple of landings every year, very low-key,” says Couvrette, now the refugee ministry officer for the diocese. But then, she says, came the “Syrian surge.”

“Alan Kurdi’s photo was published and the Canadian public was really galvanized.”

As luck would have it, the diocese had been approached earlier by a group of lawyers in the community who wanted to sponsor through the diocese’s SAH. They created a contract for services, which became the blueprint for many other groups that began to come forward looking to sponsor Syrian refugees. “We were nicely placed to be ready for a huge onslaught of community interest,” says Couvrette.

At the time, she worked in the diocesan office, and can remember watching strangers come in off the street to ask if they could help sponsor. As interest grew, Ottawa bishop John Chapman knew the ministry had to expand; he tapped Couvrette to move into working full time for the refugee ministry as its first paid employee.

Through a number of complex factors, the government calculates each year how many spots will be allocated for each SAH, determining the maximum number of cases they will be allowed to take on in the year. The diocese of Ottawa’s allocations shot up in 2016 and have been steadily growing, Couvrette says. While much initial interest came from “sponsor-the-stranger types,” the echo effect has meant that requests remain high. “Once [the sponsored family] arrived, the sponsoring groups spent their year and…often became good friends afterward.” Groups often want to help bring over remaining family members.

“Inevitably the newcomers here are, sadly, getting calls, day in and day out, from their relatives overseas, saying, ‘Please help us,’” says Couvrette. “We just have way more people looking for sponsorships than we have the capacity to provide.” The ministry has limited spaces, and a limited pool of volunteers; often newcomers don’t have the resources or are not eligible to sponsor alone and need a group to partner with them. (“Constituent groups” are groups in the community that sponsor under an SAH’s agreement.)

Before moving to the diocese of Niagara, the Rev. Scott McLeod ran the diocese of B.C.’s refugee ministry “off the side of his desk,” he says. When he took on the role in Niagara, he imagined it would be the same way, but soon requests began to flood in.

McLeod is still a volunteer—his full-time work is in parish ministry—though the refugee ministry has grown fivefold since 2015.

“That’s one of the weird aspects of this work,” he says. “The need has not been any less—it wasn’t any less before 2015. It’s just that response has increased.”

Because Niagara has a comparatively small ministry with no full-time staff, McLeod says, they mandate that sponsoring groups have a connection to a parish in the diocese.

In the diocese of B.C., Davis says, their ministry has partnered with the local Roman Catholic diocese and several other faith communities which do not hold a sponsorship agreement with the federal government. The diocese of Ottawa, Couvrette says, has partnered with settlement group Jewish Family Services of Ottawa.

Couvrette says that she has enjoyed the way the ministry has connected the church with the surrounding community. “It’s interesting, people who would never darken the door of a church, I think they were just grateful to know that we would help them. No strings attached.”

However, the main focus remains helping to rescue and resettle displaced people, and it can be a difficult job.

“It is very stressful work,” Couvrette admits. “I’m not trying to whine about it. But you do have to have resilience, because of all the people you can’t help.”

For SAHs, the overwhelming need can be exhausting. “Some dioceses have been able to put some more resources in, others not,” says Rumsey. “The coordinators are feeling pretty exhausted. On one hand, the need is so great and they want to respond; on the other, they’re just feeling like there’s so much more to be done, so much more needed.”

Canadians increased their involvement with refugee resettlement during the height of the 2015 refugee crisis—welcoming people escaping war in places like Syria. Photos: Stacey Newman/Shutterstock

Policy matters

Most privately sponsored refugees in Canada either come through the Blended-Visa Office Referred (BVOR) program or by sponsoring a specific refugee or family known to the sponsor.

The BVOR program connects sponsors with refugees that have already been screened and referred by bodies like the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Sponsors are expected to provide six months of financial support and 12 months of “social and emotional support.”

BVOR refugees typically arrive in three to four months, in Couvrette’s experience. The diocese of Ottawa has paired many volunteers with BVOR sponsorships through the BVOR fund—a philanthropic fund created by the U.S.-based Shapiro Foundation and G. Barrie Landry—which pays for BVOR sponsorships, requiring sponsors to provide emotional rather than financial support.

Applications for sponsoring a refugee you know take much longer, typically at least a year, and are not eligible for financial assistance from the government. Sponsors are required to provide one year of financial, social and emotional support after the family arrives in Canada.

Private sponsorship has advantages, Couvrette notes, including the network that comes along with having a group of Canadians to support a newcomer family.

Canada’s unique sponsorship model is beginning to be adopted by other countries like Sweden and Germany, Rumsey says. Still, although she says private sponsorship is a “wonderful program,” Rumsey worries about a trend toward the government allotting fewer spaces for government-assisted refugees and more for private sponsorships, “essentially, privatization of refugee sponsorship.”

According to the most recent annual report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, Canada admitted the largest number of resettled refugees in 2018. The UNHCR report also estimated that 70.8 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violation at the end of 2018, and identified 1.2 million refugees in need of urgent resettlement. That number is expected to grow to 1.44 million in 2020.

Canada has felt the effects of changes south of the border, Rumsey notes. Since taking office in 2016, U.S. President Donald Trump has reduced refugee resettlement to “historic lows,” according to the Pew Research Center. In 2020, the U.S. plans to admit a maximum of 18,000 refugees—down from a cap of 30,000 in 2019—which would be the lowest number of refugees resettled in the country since its refugee resettlement program was created in 1980.

In November, a case was brought before Canada’s Federal Court by challengers including the Canadian Council of Churches (of which the Anglican Church of Canada is a member), Amnesty International, and the Canadian Council for Refugees (of which PWRDF is a member), asking the court to rule that Canada end its Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. on the grounds that the U.S. no longer meets the standard of a safe third country.

The agreement currently mandates that asylum seekers apply for refugee status in the first “safe country” they enter. Critics of the agreement say that it has led to an upswing in irregular border crossings from the U.S. into Canada since 2016.

According to the most recent annual
report from the UNHCR an estimated 70.8 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced at the end of 2018. Photo: Stacey Newman/Shutterstock

Finding hope

For now, Anglicans working in refugee ministries are simply continuing to try and keep up with demand.

The diocese of Ottawa has recently reworked its structure so that the refugee ministry is under the direction of Archdeacon PJ Hobbs, the diocese’s director of mission, and has hired a new staff member to replace Smith, who will soon be retiring from full-time volunteering.

When asked how Anglicans can respond to the global refugee crisis, Couvrette quotes her colleague. “As Don said this morning… ‘Some Anglicans have time, some have money, some have both.’ Do what you can. You know? Make donations. Join your parish sponsoring group. You can do both in some cases.”

“The refugee situation worldwide, it’s absolutely depressing,” says McLeod. “The level of need in terms of refugees is absolutely linked to the state of the world, so the fact that there’s more refugees means that things are not getting better…. But the UNHCR had a slogan for World Refugee Day a number of years ago, and it was ‘one refugee without hope is too many.’ There’s a lot of wisdom in that, because we can’t respond to the needs of 70 million displaced people…. But you know, group by group, sponsorship by sponsorship, we can help a family or a person at a time. That certainly makes a difference.”

For Davis, the most rewarding part of sponsorship is seeing the children. “I get my greatest kicks from watching the children. You see them…arrive, and they’re timid. They’re full of smiles, but they’re shy, and you can tell they’ve gone through some pretty traumatic things. And then [you] watch them blossom.”

Rumsey quotes the writer and dissident, and former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Vàclav Havel: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

“You can’t find hope in the state of the world. It has to be something inside you. But also sort of a conviction that you’re not taking something on because you know it’s going to be easy, or that there’s going to be, necessarily, a positive outcome—but because it’s the right thing to do,” says Rumsey.

“I think that’s why a lot of the folks that engage in this do this work. They know it’s the right thing to do. It’s the commitment to welcoming the stranger…. If we’re going to be people of faith, Christians, that’s part of what it’s about.”


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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