Montreal

Long lines for private refugee sponsors show need for reform, advocates say

Dozens of people spent the weekend in a Quebec Immigration Ministry office, some of them sleeping on the floor or fold-out chairs, in the hope of being able to sponsor a refugee. Not all of them were successful.

With cap on applications, some would-be sponsors turned away early Monday

People hoping to become private refugee sponsors waited in line much of the weekend at a Quebec Immigration Ministry office in Montreal. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Dozens of people spent the weekend in a Quebec Immigration Ministry office in Montreal, some of them sleeping on the floor or on fold-out chairs, in the hope of being able to sponsor a refugee.

Not all of them were successful.

Originally from  Afghanistan, Sharbano Rezai's family is living in Iran as refugees. Rezai spent three nights in the ministry office, hoping to finally bring them to Canada.

She was 49th in line, but she isn't sure if the government will even read her documents because some people ahead of her were delivering upward of 10 applications.

"This is not fair," she said. "This is a not about just staying in line for three nights. This is about people's lives."

The province is only accepting 750 applications for private sponsorship for the coming year on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Sharbano Rezai spent three nights in the ministry office, but isn't certain her application to sponsor her family will be heard. (CBC)

The process, critics say, is inefficient and inhumane.

"It's a bit of a mess inside," said Sylvain Thibault, a would-be sponsor and longtime refugee advocate.

"It really looks like a refugee camp. There are people who have been here 24 hours a day since Thursday around noon. So it's been four days."

Last week, advocates had raised a concern that potential sponsors would be forced to spend the weekend outside in the cold in the hope of securing a spot.

The province ended up opening the Immigration Ministry's doors starting Friday evening, so would-be sponsors could wait inside. It also provided coffee and water, said a ministry spokesperson.

The available spots were quickly filled when the government began accepting applications Monday morning. 

The government required that the applications be dropped off at the ministry office by a courier, not mailed or dropped off by the applicant. 

Some couriers charge upwards of $500 per application and submitted multiple applications, Radio-Canada reported.

Backlog of applications

There was a long line the last time the province accepted applications, as well, in September 2018.

The Quebec program, modelled on the federal one, has been popular from the start, leading to such a backlog of unprocessed applications that in 2017, the program had to be suspended for more than 18 months while the government processed thousands of existing applications.

The applications for private refugee sponsorship must be submitted by courrier. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

In total, more than 9,000 refugees were accepted into the province in 2017 (many are brought in through a federal government-assisted program, not through private sponsorship).

However, the Coalition Avenir Québec government, which was elected in 2018 on a commitment to reduce immigration, says it aims to cut the number of refugees to between 7,200 and 7,500 in 2020, with a maximum of 3,350 sponsored refugees.

The government has justified its promise to reduce the number of immigrants overall by saying it wants to focus efforts on better integrating people. 

Paul Clarke, the head of Action Réfugiés, said last week the system isn't working.

"We're ready to welcome more people, and we have the capacity to sponsor them. The numbers that are being permitted are too low." 

Minister promises to modernize system

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette acknowledged there are problems with the current approach, and he said the process of submitting applications through a courier will be reviewed. 

"Many of our immigration programs need to be modernized. This is the case for collective sponsorship, and we will work on it," he said in a statement.

He also said Quebec "recognizes the principle of international solidarity" with respect to refugees and takes in "more than its fair share, in terms of humanitarian immigration."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Shingler is based in Montreal. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

Reporting from Jay Turnbull and Radio-Canada

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