Refugee advocates warn against shift to private sponsorship

As thousands of Canadians work on campaigns to privately sponsor Syrian migrants, refugee advocates hope the government builds on the private sector interest rather than becomes dependent on it.

Refugee advocates want government to build on private sponsors, not depend on it

Canada's Immigration Minister John McCallum says privately-sponsored refugees could bring the total number settling to as many as 50,000. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

As thousands of Canadians work on campaigns to privately sponsor Syrian migrants, refugee advocates hope the government builds on the private sector interest rather than become dependent on it.

Canada is the only country in the world with a formal, private sponsorship program for refugees, but in recent years, under the previous Conservative government, the Canadian Council for Refugees worried the system was headed towards a refugee resettlement system that would be government run, but privately funded.

Janet Dench, executive director of the council, said there are encouraging signs from the Liberal government, but there are still some fears. 

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, is concerned about the increasing reliance on private sponsorships of refugees. (CBC)
"We're certainly concerned about not continuing on this way of kind of converting a government commitment into a private sponsorship thing," said Dench. "The basic principle of private sponsorship is additionality."

Dench and other advocates want to see private sponsorship work above and beyond a significant, government-sponsored system. 

Will commitment extend past Syria refugees?

Naomi Alboim, an executive with Lifeline Syria and a Queen's University professor who studies immigration policy, said she's watching to see how the new government's policy develops and if the commitment will continue beyond the current influx of Syrian refugees.

"The question is whether the government will respond in kind to the increase in the interest of civil society and also increase the number of government-assisted refugees that will be brought to the country," said Alboim.

Dench said when it comes to the current, speedy push to bring in 25,000 Syrians, it's understandable there are some hiccups in the planning and processing.

She notes there are some frustrations when it comes to matching people who want to bring refugee family members here and sponsorship groups flush with money and ready to take on the responsibility. 

Cabinet minister Maryam Monsef said her family depended on grassroots organizations and an uncle in Peterborough when they applied for refugee status 20 years ago. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
"There's not that matching service, so somehow that's where things are falling down," said Dench. "The gap here is in terms of matching those who want to be sponsored and those who want to sponsor."

MP says settlement works when public, private work in concert

Maryam Monsef arrived in Peterborough, Ontario as a refugee from Afghanistan 20 years ago with her mother and sisters. She's now the new MP for Peterborough-Kawartha and minister for democratic institutions. 

Monsef's family did not come to Canada as government-assisted refugees. Instead they depended on grassroots organizations and an uncle in Peterborough to get by, she says.

"We came here and sought refugee status," said Monsef. "It was the YWCA here and their women's shelter, refugee homes run by Sisters of St. Joseph, they had transitional housing for us to stay at and the Salvation Army."

Monsef said the non-governmental and private sector are essential in settlement. 

"It's financially helpful," said Monsef. "We are most successful when individuals and grassroots initiatives are happening in parallel with the different levels of government."

Usually, the federal government tables its plans for future immigration policy in November every year, but this year, with a new government and a huge refugee initiative unfolding, the plan for 2016 has not yet been presented. 

"We've seen with the previous government, the number increased in economic immigrants coming to the country, but a decline in refugees," said Alboim. "We don't know what that proportion will be for 2016 or beyond."

The federal government has committed to bringing in 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees over the next year and combined with private sponsors, Minister John McCallum has said the number settled could eventually be as high as 50,000.