How Canada resettles refugees — after a lengthy process

As armed conflicts overseas continue without an end in sight, thousands of families are turning to countries like Canada in hopes of finding a new home. But the process isn't easy.

Processing asylum seekers is complex work that requires background checks and establishing identity

'Refugee processing is complex due to work with some of the world's most at-risk people in challenging local conditions,' says CIC spokeswoman Julie Lafortune. (Hany Al Moliya)

As armed conflicts overseas continue without an end in sight, each year about 100,000 refugees resettle in countries such as Canada, in hopes of finding a new home. 

Resettled refugees have fled their own country to seek asylum elsewhere, usually in a neighbouring country, due to threats to their life or liberty, and then travel to a third country as part of an official resettlement program

Last year, 12,300 such refugees — about half of all the refugees who came to Canada — went through the complicated process to resettle here. (The other half arrive in Canada first and then claim asylum).

Of those who resettled to Canada in 2014, about 7,500 were privately sponsored, 4,500 were government-assisted and 177 arrived through a new program that blends the first two.

The vast majority of those refugees first go through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency. "UNHCR looks for the most vulnerable people in a refugee camp or other situation," said Michael Casasola, a UNHCR resettlement officer in Ottawa. Casasola adds, in an article on the UNHCR Canada website, that Canada accepts 90 per cent of the refugee cases that the agency presents to it.

Canada's visa offices abroad usually only consider applications referred to them by UNHCR or, in some cases, other refugee referral organizations. But in some private sponsorship cases, Canada will process unreferred applicants who still meet the definition of a refugee. For example, effective Sept. 19, Citizenship and Immigration Canada is temporarily waiving the referral requirement for privately sponsored Syrian refugees.

Syrian children play outside their tent at a refugee camp in the town of Bar Elias in Lebanon's Bekaa valley May 22, 2014. Canada is temporarily waiving the referral requirement for privately sponsored Syrian refugees. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

CIC says refugees with special circumstances get prioritized for resettlement in accordance with Chapter 6 of the UNHCR's Resettlement Handbook, which sets out three tiers for the urgency of their removal.

"Refugee processing is complex due to work with some of the world's most at-risk people in challenging local conditions," CIC spokeswoman Julie Lafortune said. 

"Some of these factors include establishing identity, addressing security concerns as well as logistical challenges that are outside of CIC's control. Interviewing applicants can be complicated by a lack of access, a lack of documentation and difficulties in establishing family relationships."

Also, "there must be no reasonable prospect, within a reasonable period of time, of a durable solution," CIC says. That means a successful refugee applicant must be in a situation where they cannot safely return soon to their home country, integrate into the country where they have sought refuge, or receive a resettlement offer from another country.

Getting private sponsorship

Private sponsorship of refugees in Canada began during the Vietnamese boat people crisis in the late 1970s.

All refugees from outside Canada undergo a medical examination and a security check to ensure they’re not a security risk to Canada. (EPA/CEM TURKEL)

Most privately sponsored refugees get to Canada with at least some involvement of what are called "sponsorship agreement holders." They are the more than 80 groups that have agreements with the federal government permitting them to sponsor refugees. Faith groups account for the majority.

Some community organizations and what the government calls "groups of five" can also sponsor refugees. Those groups are made up of five or more adults who hold Canadian citizenship and live in the area will the refugee will eventually settle. Most of the groups form to sponsor a relative.

The private sponsors agree to pay for the refugees' basic expenses (rent, food, transportation) for up to one year once they arrive, less if the refugees become self-sufficient sooner.

CIC estimates the total bill for a family of four refugees comes to about $27,000 for a year.

Under a program the government calls the Blended Visa Office-Referred program, which began in 2013 and is aimed at refugees already approved by the federal government, the government and the private sponsors each pay for six months of financial support, while the sponsors pay the startup costs and provide settlement support.

Forms and more forms

Perhaps the biggest burden for private sponsors involves filling out all the required forms. And all refugee applicants have to do their share of form-filling, too. Incomplete information or inaccurate information could significantly delay an application, and even cause it not to win approval.

Once all the documentation has come together, the file usually goes to CIC's central processing office in Winnipeg. The sponsors are also assessed, as is their detailed plan for assisting the refugees. The application could get sent back to the sponsor if information is missing or there's some other problem.

Family members of 24 Syrian refugees who arrived in Winnipeg on Oct. 5 greeted them with signs, hugs and presents. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

From here on, the process is pretty much the same, whether the refugees are government-assisted or privately sponsored.

(For the former, the government provides financial assistance for their first year in Canada, or until they are able to support themselves, whichever comes first.)

The application goes to a Canadian visa office near where the refugees currently reside. If the government is not expediting claims, as they currently do for Iraqi and Syrian refugees, this step may take a long time.

Some offices have huge backlogs. New Delhi, India, and Islamabad, Pakistan, clock in at 6.5 years to process a complete application, according to the CIC website. In other countries, it can take less than a year.

Once processed, a visa officer interviews the prospective refugee. If the officer rejects their application at this stage, that's it; there's no appeal.

Security screening

If they get through, resettlement applicants must "undergo a medical examination and a criminal and security check to make sure that they have not committed serious crimes in the past and that they are not a security risk to Canada before they are accepted for resettlement to Canada," CIC's Lafortune said via email.

CIC collects fingerprints and photos and runs them against Canadian and U.S. records.

Applicants won't be excluded because they might be a medical burden but they could be delayed if they have an infectious disease, for example.

The International Organization for Migration handles the arrangements for the trip to Canada, paid for by the refugee. If they cannot afford the ticket, they can borrow the money from the federal government, up to $10,000.

Once resettled refugees land in Canada, they become permanent residents.

Three months after arriving in Regina, Hany Al Moliya, centre, and his family have been set up with the basics: housing, bus passes, health cards, school registration. The government-sponsored Syrian refugee family were resettled from Lebanon. (CBC)

With files from Jonathan Rumley