Nova Scotia

Syrian refugee application backlog frustrates Nova Scotia groups

Nova Scotia volunteer groups say they are paying for empty apartments because paperwork backlogs are delaying the arrival of refugees they sponsored.

Closure of three overseas immigration offices that fast-tracked Syrian refugee applications causes slowdown

The Crichton Park Friends of Refugees says the apartment it rented in Dartmouth is sitting empty as a paperwork backlog slows down the arrival of the Syrian family it sponsored. (CBC)

Nova Scotia volunteer groups say they're being told it could take up to a year for Syrian refugees they sponsored to arrive in Canada, forcing them to pay for empty apartments that were supposed to be filled months ago.

The problem is a paperwork backlog created when temporary offices set up overseas to fast-track refugees closed at the end of February when the government reached its goal of bringing 25,000 people to Canada.

Deborah Woolway with the Crichton Park Friends of Refugees says her group was matched with a Kurdish-Syrian family of four. Their medical and security checks have been approved. They hold United Nations refugee status. 

But they're stuck waiting in Lebanon. 

"They're caught up, we believe, in what is a slowdown of processing of refugees," Woolway told CBC's Maritime Noon.

"We totally applaud the government for what they've done, I just think they need a serious course correction and they need it fast." 

Deborah Woolway with the Crichton Park Friends of Refugees says her group was matched with a Kurdish-Syrian family of four. (CBC)

The price of waiting

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, three temporary sites overseas were closed. Unfinished applications will continue to be processed the normal way with regular staff. 

"This whole thing is grinding to a halt," said Woolway, who is a former CBC employee. 

Woolway says her group and others — including those in Chester and Fall River she's spoken with — rushed to find homes for their refugees months ago. Now, they're burning through the funds they raised just to keep those accommodations available.

"I'd like the government to sort of explain to the kids who cracked into their piggy banks and had bake sales to raise money why their families are not coming in the foreseeable future," she said.

Families feel 'worried and dejected'

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says it's important to remember that refugees from other parts of the world — who've been in the application queue longer — are due for processing. 

"We know refugees and sponsors are disappointed that expedited processing is not continuing, but the accelerated pace of recent months could not be sustained indefinitely," wrote department spokeswoman Nancy Chan in an email to CBC. 

"Most of the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada staff who were temporarily deployed overseas and in-Canada have returned to their substantive positions."

The Kurdish-Syrian family of four is in Lebanon still waiting to enter Canada. (Submitted by Deborha Woolway)

For Woolway, that doesn't make it any easier when explaining to her group's Syrian family why the all-clear is taking so long.

"They're obviously incredibly anxious, worried, and dejected. Our family happens to be in Lebanon. They're not in a refugee camp. But nevertheless, they understood that they were coming to Canada by the end of March. That was the hope," Woolway said. 

A 'heartbreaking' problem

The Rockingham Residents Association finds itself in the same boat. Its Syrian family of three is stuck in Turkey. 

"Our family has no way of getting outside of Turkey because the Canadian embassy in Turkey has closed and our family's 12 hours from the capital," said Renee Field, chair of the association. "And because they're Kurdish, they can't even leave the apartment building." 

She says their family is running out of food because where they're living — the city of Mardin Nusaybin — is caught between pro and anti-Kurdish forces. 

"It's heartbreaking that we're kind of lost in this limbo of getting them out, even after the Canadian government asked us to rally to support Syrian refugees." 

The furniture in the Dartmouth apartment was donated, Woolway says, but the rent is forcing her group to dip into money that can also be used for living and support costs. (CBC)

Trouble at the 'finish line'

Woolway says they've kept up the pursuit with federal officials, hoping for an answer to the backlog. 

On Monday, Immigration Minister John McCallum posted a response on Facebook. 

"In the last few days I have received feedback from the resettlement community. I have asked my department to review suitable options in response to your concerns. I will get back to you shortly."

Woolway says this backlog is likely a case of unintended consequences. 

"I really don't think they want to squander the goodwill and all that capital they've accrued by messing this up now as we're kind of reaching the finish line," she said. 

With files from Maritime Noon


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