British Columbia

Focus on Syrian refugees is at the expense of Iraqis, sponsors say

As Ottawa closes in on its goal to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by March 1, there are concerns from some sponsorship groups that the focus on Syrians is slowing down the process for Iraqi refugees.

Federal government says Iraqis still arriving, but asks sponsors to delay new applications

Father Sarmad Biloues, a Surrey priest and an Iraqi refugee himself, sifts through a stack of refugee sponsorship applications. (CBC News)

As Ottawa closes in on its goal to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by March 1, there are concerns from some sponsorship groups that the focus on Syrians is slowing down the process for Iraqi refugees. 

When the federal government began its push to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada in November 2015, Immigration Minister John McCallum said that even though Syrians would be given priority, "other refugee populations continue to be processed as per usual and existing commitments and admission targets will be met."

But Father Sarmad Biloues, a Catholic priest based in Surrey, is convinced that Iraqi arrivals are being delayed. 

The Iraqi refugee [is] the same as the Syrian refugee. Both of them, they've been persecuted by ISIS. Both of them are suffering- Father  Sarmad   Biloues , priest and Iraqi refugee

"All the problems happened when Trudeau became Prime Minister and he said, 'I will focus on Syrian refugees,'" Biloues says. 

Biloues says his parish has seen one Iraqi family arrive in 2016, after a sponsorship process of two years. 

In comparison, they welcomed a Syrian family last week, after just three months' wait.

Biloues, who is an Iraqi refugee who also spent time in Syria, says both groups deserve Canada's compassion. 

"The Iraqi refugee [is] the same as the Syrian refugee," he says. 

"Both of them, they've been persecuted by ISIS. Both of them they went to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon. Both of them are suffering." 

Complaints 'from across the country'

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum, left, pledged that non-Syrian refugee applications would continue to be processed, but Conservative critic Michelle Rempel says she's heard reports of delays. (Canadian Press photos)

Numbers provided to CBC from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada appear to show that Iraqi arrivals have not slowed down. 

From Jan. to Oct. 2015, before the focus on Syrian refugees, an average of 72 Iraqi privately-sponsored refugees arrived in Canada each month. 

In Dec. 2015, 99 arrived, and in Jan. 2016, that number was 46. 

But Conservative Immigration Critic Michelle Rempel says her office has been receiving complaints about delays in non-Syrian sponsorship, "not just from one part of the country, but from across the country." 

Rempel has submitted an order paper to the federal government, asking whether staff have been reassigned under the Syrian settlement initiative. 

Darrell McLeod, the chair of the sponsorship committee at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Coquitlam, says they were told in Oct. 2015 to expect an Iraqi family imminently, under the Blended Visa Office-Referred sponsorship program. 

"We were told that it was going to be 1-3 weeks," he says. 

"They had passed all of the refugee steps already. They'd been interviewed, they'd done medicals, all they needed was flights."

The family didn't arrive until the end of Jan. 2016, three months later than expected.

McLeod says he doesn't know the reason for the holdup, but notes that it happened at a time when the government was going full-tilt on meeting its Syrian targets.

Sponsors asked to delay non-Syrian applications 

Darrell McLeod, on the left, the chair of the sponsorship committee at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Coquitlam, and Sam Sada, an Iraqi refugee and church parishioner, are frustrated that they're being discouraged by Ottawa from submitting a sponsorship application for Sada's relatives. (Catherine Rolfsen)

Several B.C. sponsorship groups expressed concern to CBC about a government email discouraging sponsors from submitting new applications for non-Syrian refugees. 

"I am asking that the [sponsorship agreement holder] community delay sponsorship application submissions in 2016 until planning for the Immigration Levels Plan is finalized," writes Anita Biguzs, deputy minister at Citizenship and Immigration Canada. 

"During this period, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada will continue to accept applications submitted for Syrian refugees." 

The Immigration Levels Plan establishes caps on refugees, and is usually laid out before the year begins. 

But the 2016 plan has yet to be presented to parliament, a delay Biguzs attributes to several factors including the government's "commitment to resettle a large number of Syrian refugees." 

That email may have had an impact on new sponsorships.  

According to the numbers from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, only 9 private sponsorship applications were received for Iraqi refugees in Jan. 2016, compared to a monthly average of 160 in 2015. 

Only 35 private sponsorship applications were received for all non-Syrian refugees in Jan. 2016, compared to a monthly average of 387 in 2015. 

Sam Sada, a parishioner at St. Clare, has completed a sponsorship application for his Iraqi relatives currently living in Turkey. 

But be says now there's no point in submitting it. 

"[It] makes me feel bad, and makes me feel bad about them," he says of his relatives, a family with two young children. 

"They don't have any hope."