Private sponsors given choice of swapping delayed Syrian refugees for others
'We may never know what happens to them,' says co-chair of sponsorship group torn over tough decision
Ottawa is offering certain private sponsors of Syrian refugees whose entry to Canada has been delayed to get replacement families.
"It's a difficult choice," said Don Smith, chair of the refugee working group for the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.
"Sponsorship ends up being a personal commitment between people here and people there. If you know the people, you're not going to give up on them."
The government has been under increasing pressure to respond to the complaints of private sponsors still waiting for refugees to arrive.
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The current offer only applies to a small section of privately sponsored Syrian refugees — those on the government's Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) list — for which the government and private sponsors split the costs.
Since March, about 140 Syrian BVOR cases have been delayed.
The government made non-travel-ready cases available to sponsorship groups to meet the "overwhelming interest in BVOR sponsorship during the Syrian resettlement initiative." Sponsors were warned at the time that their refugee families still had to be screened.
"Some of these cases are currently on hold pending security/criminality and/or medical checks," said Lindsay Wemp of the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, in an email.
The new refugees will have already passed their medical and security screening.
'We hope they find their way to Canada'
The government has promised to bring over the refugees who have been replaced as government-assisted refugees if their cases are eventually approved.
Many sponsorship groups now have to make difficult decisions.
"Absolutely we would take a substitute family, [but] we'd be disappointed," said John Wright, co-chair of a sponsorship group based in Ottawa that's waited since January for their family to arrive.
"We hope that the first family find their way to Canada. We may never know what happens to them."
Wright and his group have no connection with their refugee family they selected from a government list.
"Of course we had hoped for the family, the family we've never met, to come here," said Wright, who has mixed feelings about the federal government's offer. "But we have so little information [about the delay], we just have to accept that. And we're really hopeful that we can have someone else in their stead."
Smith says that by offering to replace one refugee family with another, the government is living up to its commitment to both refugees and private sponsors.
"They will get a family to sponsor, and the [refugee] families will come," he said. "One way or another. It is a good resolution to what turned out to be a sticky situation."
But other sponsorship groups feel too close to their prospective family to give up on them.
There's no way we can abandon this small family.- Philip English, refugee sponsor
Philip English's group has already sponsored one Syrian refugee family, and is now waiting for the father's brother, wife and child to arrive from Jordan.
"It doesn't work for us at all," English said. "There's no way we can abandon this small family with their baby, in place of some other group that we don't know at all."
In an email to CBC News, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said sponsors have been told there "are no guarantees that the family will ultimately be approved for resettlement to Canada."
Groups accepting the offer have been promised families who match the profile of refugees they had already committed to sponsor. Only one replacement case will be offered to each group.
The new cases will be offered as they become available, and first choice will go to the groups that have been waiting the longest.