'Frustrating' backlog of refugee applications will likely get longer as federal targets drop

Spurred on by this year's fast-tracking of displaced Syrians, nearly 30,000 more people are in line to come to Canada as refugees — but they are likely in for a wait, as the government is lowering its target for refugee resettlement in the coming year.

Canada's 'bold humanitarian mission' to resettle Syrians sparked huge interest — and long waits

Judi Kanaan sings a solo in French with the Syrian refugee choir in the House of Commons Thursday. She arrived with her family last December after three years living in limbo as refugees in Jordan. (CBC)

Spurred on by this year's fast-tracking of displaced Syrians, nearly 30,000 more people are in line to come to Canada as refugees — but they may be in for a wait as the total number of refugees to be resettled in the coming year is much lower than this year's target.

According to Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada there are 4,264 Syrians with approved applications who are waiting to fly to Canada.

Another 25,756 applications are pending final processing.

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. (ISSBC) calls the 2016 push to resettle tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by a bloody conflict a "bold humanitarian mission." 

"It captured the world's attention, and, of course, captured Syrian's interest in the region." 

Chris Friesen, who works with refugees arriving in B.C., says the government needs to look at the growing backlog and the frustration of Canadians who are ready to help. (CBC)

But with reduced numbers for the refugees to be resettled next year, and the large inventory of applications already being processed by Canada's immigration offices, Syrian families hoping to come here could be waiting for years. 

"It's something that we need to look at — there is a lot of pent up interest," Friesen says. Based on current processing times and the already-existing backlog, Friesen says "it could take the government three years to address the private sponsorship applications on file." 

The federal government says 2017 numbers will be lower compared to what it calls the "extraordinary target" in 2016. In 2016, the target for refugees and protected persons was 55,800. In 2017, that number drops to 40,000. But that is for all refugees from across the world, not only from Syria.

As telling, the target number of government assisted refugees (GARS) drops to 7,500 next year, from more than 18,000 over the last 12 months.

'Frustrating' backlog

Lifeline Syria, a main Toronto settlement agency, has had to shut down intake for any new private sponsorship applications. There are just too many families in the backlog already.

It's been frustrating, you just want to help someone in need and you want them to be helped as soon as possible.- Joanne Green, Roncesvilles Refugees Relief

Joanne Green, whose group Roncesvalles Refugees Relief, raised enough money to sponsor two Syrian families, has been waiting over seven months for the first family to arrive. For that family, the wait time has come with personal tragedy.

"I just got an email from the daughter saying 'My father died today.'"

The father in the family was the principal applicant, and there was concern the application would be rejected. It wasn't, the mother's name was substituted and the family is still waiting to come to Canada, after seven months.

"It's been frustrating, you just want to help someone in need and you want them to be helped as soon as possible."

Green says her group has been frustrated not knowing how long the queue is.

"We got very little information once the application went in." 

As the year turns over since the first of the refugees arrived in Canada in early December, various agencies are taking stock. 

Joanne Green helped Kanaan while Green waited for the two families her group sponsored. They applied for the first one in March 2015 and haven't heard anything since. (Susan Ormiston CBC )

Some patterns emerged when ISSBC surveyed 300 Syrian households who arrived in B.C.

Roughly 17 per cent of the people surveyed say they have found part-time or full-time work. English classes have been popular, with 75 per cent of the respondents saying they had signed up. 

Fifteen per cent of the people surveyed reflect symptoms of untreated trauma, ISSBC says.

And three quarters of the newly arrived refugees have family members left in the Middle East who want to come to Canada.

Canada's immigration department said it's in the process of finalizing a broad report called "Rapid Impact Evaluation" that will look at how the 26,000 refugees who came by March 2016 are adjusting in Canada but the department would not yet reveal its findings. 

Lotes, six, also sang in a special concert on Parliament Hill. Her family was part of the first wave of Syrian refugees arriving from Jordan. (Sylvia Thomson)


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.