COVID-19 halts Canadian arrivals for refugees detained for years near Australia
Final approvals for 97 people bound for Canada can't be processed until overseas visa office reopens
A Vancouver settlement agency is ready to welcome 97 refugees who've been detained on islands north of Australia, but COVID-19 has put a wrench in the plan.
Applications from the MOSAIC immigrant settlement organization to sponsor the new arrivals have passed the initial approval process in Canada, and they've been transferred to the overseas visa office in Sydney.
"With COVID-19, it changed everything," Saleem Spindari, the senior manager for MOSAIC's refugees and migrant workers program, told CBC.
Because of the pandemic, Canada's Sydney visa office is closed, which means the paperwork and final checks can't be completed for the 97 refugees.
Spindari hopes the problem can be resolved quickly.
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"Some of them have been in detention under really deplorable conditions since 2013," he said.
"Waiting seven years and hearing that they are coming to Canada, they are anxiously waiting to come back and hear that their files are finalized."
Australia has adopted a hard-line policy on immigration, and any asylum seekers caught trying to reach the country by boat are sent for processing in camps in Papua New Guinea or the island nation of Nauru.
The United Nations, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called on the country to shut down the island facilities, which they say are "inhumane" and rife with abuse.
Spindari says MOSAIC was approached in 2019 by advocate groups in Australia about sponsoring some of the migrants, and the process has moved quickly until now.
'We are still in prison'
Myo Win has been in detention since July 2013, first in a now-closed facility on Christmas Island and then on Nauru, about 3,000 kilometres northeast of Australia.
"I am stuck here," Win told CBC. "We are still in prison — an open air prison."
He's a member of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya minority, and said Canada is his only hope. He's already had two rejections from the U.S., which has dramatically lowered the number of refugees it accepts and cut off immigration entirely from some Muslim-majority countries.
"It's a very, very hard time," Win said.
His wife and two children are still in Myanmar, and he hopes to be able to reunite the family in Canada.
A total of 83 family members are set to arrive in Canada alongside the refugees under MOSAIC's sponsorship. While they wait for the pandemic-related gridlock to clear, those family members are still living in places like Myanmar, Iraq and Syria.
Those in detention also include 31-year-old Ali Fardmavini from Iran, who arrived in 2013 as well. He said the detention centres he's lived in on Christmas Island and in Papua New Guinea lacked adequate medical facilities and are often unsafe.
"I just want to come and start my life," he said of Canada.
While he waited to be granted asylum, Fardmavini has learned how to sew and speak English, and hopes to complete his university education once he arrives in Toronto, where he plans to settle.
He also learned Spanish in the hope of being accepted into the U.S., but Iran is one of the countries covered under the American immigration ban, so his application was rejected.
"When I heard about the Canadian process … it's the best thing in the world that could happen to me," Fardmavini said.
MOSAIC's Spindari doesn't have a timeline for when the process might finally be complete, but said he hopes that as soon as tourism resumes in Australia, the visa office there with be able to finalize the approvals.
"We are ready to welcome them at any time. We've made all of the possible arrangements, raised enough funds to support them," he said.
With files from Briar Stewart and Georgie Smyth