The diocese of Islands and Inlets—also known as the diocese of British Columbia—is investigating how it can continue its volunteer refugee sponsorship program in light of a new set of regulations that increases the burden of paperwork, says its bishop, Anna Greenwood-Lee.
“In our case, the diocese has covered the overhead for this program in terms of the administrative cost of having staff to do the paperwork and the finances … but the administrative cost is increasing without a way of paying for it,” says Greenwood-Lee.
In December, the diocese announced it would freeze its plans to sponsor new refugees as the new regulations from Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) had made it impossible to continue. Since then, church leaders have been trying to solve the problem in a number of ways, including meeting with local MPs and other sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs) and community groups. Dioceses in the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon have also hired a refugee coordinator to help them work together.
Private refugee sponsorships in Canada are administered through SAHs whose agreements with the government make them responsible—and liable—for overseeing the community volunteer groups that help welcome and settle new refugees. The diocese of Islands and Inlets holds the agreement under which its parish groups do their work.
According to an email from IRCC spokesperson Stuart Isherwood, the federal department announced its new regulations, the Program Integrity Framework (PIF), after “extensive consultations with the SAH sponsorship community over the past few years.” The new rules, he said, included, among other changes, increased requirements for SAHs to prove their financial capability before sponsoring refugees. This framework sorts SAHs by risk—placing them in a lower risk category, which requires less monitoring by the government if they can prove by an organization-wide financial audit that they meet its requirements, he said. SAHs can still sponsor refugees if they’re unable to undergo the audit, Isherwood stressed in the email—as a temporary measure, the new framework offers them the option to then go into a higher risk category, meaning more government monitoring and paperwork in the form of random checks on refugee cases, proof of funding and settlement plans and more.
Isherwood says the government does not expect the new requirements to slow down private sponsorship in Canada.
“It is important to note that the Framework will not result in fewer refugees being sponsored, given the continued interest from new organizations applying to join the program as well as the fact that demand for sponsorship spaces amongst existing SAHs continues to greatly exceed the number of spaces available,” he told the Anglican Journal.
But Greenwood-Lee has concerns. Her diocese will continue to sponsor the roughly 190 refugees to whom it has already made commitments, she says, but going forward, it will need a way to reckon with the paperwork requirements the new framework adds. A full annual financial audit of the entire diocese and all of its work—much of which is unrelated to the refugee sponsorship program—is unfeasible due to sheer scale. But aside from putting the diocese in a higher risk category, she also estimates that taking the option to prove the financial and program plan for each new refugee case would take about 10 hours of paperwork each. That works out to hundreds or thousands of hours for just the cases still in their queue.
“That’s a lot to ask from an organization dependent on volunteer work,” she says.
“A lot of what the government is asking us for is beyond the capacity of volunteers. The forms you have to fill out to sponsor refugees are incredibly complicated … We can find volunteers to drive people to dentist appointments, to register kids for school. There’s thousands and thousands of volunteer hours we can mobilize. We don’t have volunteers who have the expertise in these forms and dealing with the UN refugee committee and the audits,” she says. “The government is looking at welcoming more refugees but on the other hand making it more difficult for community groups to help.”
In a statement released to the press, the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association said that among its nationwide membership, the new rules were “proving to be onerous for some SAHs, particularly those who are 100% volunteer run.” Some 30 per cent of its members are volunteer-run, the release notes, while another 12 per cent have just one part-time staff member.
Alex Hauschildt is the operations director for the Anglican United Refugee Alliance (AURA) which is a standalone nonprofit backed by the diocese of Toronto. He says he can understand the need for the new framework’s increased regulations from the government’s perspective. It’s a matter of quality control, he says. If an organization takes on responsibility for settling new Canadians and then later fails to provide for their financial needs (sponsors typically help provide an income while a family is getting settled in Canada) or fails to help connect them with the services they need, it can seriously harm the refugees’ ability to become well integrated and productive members of their communities.
“If your first year here isn’t built on a strong foundation, you are now at a disadvantage for the rest of your time in Canada,” he says. “I can tell you unequivocally, I have never encountered someone who is [here for a free ride.] What they want to do is immediately work so they can support their family and start again.”
Hauschildt acknowledges that he’s saying this as a paid staff member of AURA who is able to work full-time with another paid professional on organizing and managing the administrative side of the work. He also notes that he does not normally consider himself an apologist for government policies. But he says he can see why, as the number of refugees grows, the government would need to keep a closer watch to ensure people aren’t falling through the cracks. He says that while IRCC might not provide details for privacy reasons, it’s possible they’ve had problems with private SAH’s sponsorships breaking down and leaving refugees unsupported.
His suggestion is that groups who find the increased scrutiny challenging consider doing fewer sponsorships each year, hoping the better certainty of quality helps make up for the quantity.
While doing fewer sponsorships is definitely an option for her diocese, Greenwood-Lee says, there are other options she’d prefer to explore first. First would be help from the government itself in the form of some kind of grant to help pay for the work hours that go into managing that paperwork.
“If the government can help provide a small amount of administrative money, we can leverage millions of dollars of community donations and millions of hours in community volunteer effort,” she says.
Failing that, it might make sense to form a separate nonprofit organization like AURA to handle the professionalized aspects of sponsorship, she says. That way, a financial audit would need to be done of just the new nonprofit instead of the whole diocese—a much less arduous process.
But regardless of what it takes, she says, the diocese is committed to finding a way to make the work sustainable. Not only is refugee sponsorship an essential priority for the diocese; it’s also something Greenwood-Lee believes faith communities are uniquely suited to do.“The volunteers are living out their Christian vocation to treat [their] neighbours as themselves,” she says.
“And faith communities are so broad … You can stand up in front of a community of faith on a Sunday and say ‘We just welcomed this family from Syria, we need two single beds and four lamps and an Arabic-speaking dentist’ and they’re like, ‘Okay!’ You have it by Monday. Whereas a government staff person doesn’t have access to that same network, necessarily.