Refugees face roadblocks to get to Canada

Images of a Syrian boy whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach after a failed attempt by his family to reach Greece has galvanized support for Canada to accept more refugees from war-torn regions quickly but the feat faces significant roadblocks.

Big city mayors, premiers pledge support despite lack of jurisdictional responsibility

Mourners carry a coffin during the burial of Reham Kurdi and her sons Alan, 3, and Galib, 5, Friday after they drowned during a desperate voyage to try to get to Greece. They were buried in their hometown of Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish region they fled. The shocking image Alan's body washed up on a Turkish beach focused the world's attention on the refugee crisis. (AP)

Images of a Syrian boy whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach after a failed attempt by his family to reach Greece has galvanized support for Canada to accept more refugees from war-torn regions quickly but the feat faces significant roadblocks.

Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, more than four million Syrians have become refugees, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The agency made a global appeal to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees worldwide earlier this year — prompting Canada to commit to 10,000 more on top of a previous commitment of 1,300.

So far, Canada has taken in nearly 2,500 Syrian refugees, according to Citizen and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

Big city mayors from Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver spoke today on how to speed up the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Canada, and the premiers of Nova Scotia and Manitoba have also committed to accept more refugees from Syria. Despite the will, there are jurisdictional challenges because refugees fall under federal responsibility.

Here are some other obstacles that refugees face in trying to resettle in Canada:

Minority focus

The federal government has said that it would "prioritize" refugees that are ethnic and religious minorities.

Alexander reiterated that in a statement Thursday, specifying that the government's commitment earlier this year to resettle an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees was for "persecuted ethnic and religious minorities."

The assertion raises concerns that Canada is choosing refugees based on religion, and that while the government is committed to taking more, the criteria is smaller. Furthermore, added screening to find the persecuted ethnic and religious minorities could slow down the refugee application process even further.

Bureaucratic red tape

A large majority of the Syrian refugees resettled in Canada so far have done so with the help of private sponsors, while 27 per cent have done so with government assistance.

Peter Showler, former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board, said the private sponsorships process is "much too slow." The processing time for completed applications in Turkey is 45 months, Jordan is 19 months and Lebanon is 11 months, according to the Government of Canada.

Showler said the "painful refugee risk-assessment process" should be reworked.

Rather than waiting until refugees have permanent status — a process that is delayed due to limited staff and bureaucratic obstacles — Canada should bring them here with temporary status while their applications are being processed, he said. 

"It's a lack of will. It's not a lack of way because we've done it before — we've got the expertise to do it," he said in an interview on CBC News Network.

Peter Showler, former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board, speaks about challenges faced by refugees. 5:34

Proof of refugee status

Private sponsorships applications, including community organizations and the "group of five" process that allows five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents to sponsor a refugee, must include a proof of refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or a foreign state.

The requirement, new since 2012, is just another layer to the "extraordinarily bureaucratic" refugee application, said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. Other critics have called for an end to the proof of refugee status, which they argue acts as an added barrier for vulnerable people. 

Lapsed funding

Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board underspent its budget by nearly $108 million last year, including $25 million for programs that are supposed to help resettle refugees, according to government documents.

That lapsed funding occurred at a time when there is an increased demand for Canada to take in refugees.

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