Syrian refugees not always available for sponsorship, Canadians learn

Canadians applying to sponsor refugees through a federal program that matches costs are finding that Syrian families can be hard to come by. But that isn't stopping people from opening their homes and wallets to those in need.

'Demand has outstripped supply,' says resettlement co-ordinator

A young Syrian refugee looks up as her father holds her and a Canadian flag at the as they arrive in Toronto on Dec. 18. While many Canadians are privately sponsoring Syrian families, some are taking on refugees from other countries, instead. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

When a group of churchgoers in Oakville, Ont., started the process of sponsoring a refugee family in Canada, they assumed they would be helping Syrians.

But when they were presented with a list of government-vetted families awaiting sponsorship through the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program, they were surprised to find there wasn't a single Syrian on there.

"We thought, OK, well, why?" said Deborah Laforet, minister of St. Paul's United Church. "All these refugees being highlighted in the news and the need that's out there, why aren't they on this list?"

The group, made up of members from St. Paul's and nearby Glen Abbey United Church, had a discussion about their priorities and decided to proceed with the sponsorship anyway.

"We need to realize — and maybe the rest of the community needs to realize — that there are refugees all over the world, that Syria's the one being highlighted right now, but people are in need in many different places," Laforet said.

'Demand has outstripped supply'

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are 59.5 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes by war, poverty or persecution. Of those, 19.5 million were officially registered as refugees in 2014, and one in four is Syrian.

The Canadian government has pledged to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada through a combination of private and public sponsorship.

One way Canadians can sponsor families is through the BVOR program, which matches refugees identified for resettlement by UNHCR with private sponsors in Canada. The government pays roughly half the cost of supporting the refugees for one year. 

Many sponsors who go through BVOR find themselves in the same situation as Laforet's group, said Brian Dyck, the national migration and resettlement co-ordinator with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) of Canada, which helps sponsors navigate the system.

"That's happened a lot lately," Dyck said, adding that in some cases, "demand [for Syrian refugee has outstripped supply."

"It's not that there's not enough Syrian refugees," he said. "It's a matter of getting a good match and getting the cases that are in the system to us. There's been a huge challenge. There's been a frustration in the sponsorship community about, 'We want to get more Syrians and they're not there.'"

Complaints also surfaced in September about a dearth of Syrians on the BVOR list.

Dyck said the MCC has had meetings with the federal government about addressing the issue. 


The reason sponsors are having a hard time finding Syrians through the BVOR program is because those families are being fast-tracked through the system, a spokeswoman from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said.

Syrians on the BVOR list remain there for only a short time before they are moved into the government-assisted refugee program (GAR), Nancy Chan told CBC News. 

"Sponsors have a limited opportunity to identify a case for sponsorship," Chan said. "For Syrian refugees, case information is available for 14 days. If no sponsor is identified, then processing resumes as a GAR, so that refugees are not waiting indefinitely for a sponsor."

Interest in Syrians 'extremely high'

The MCC is an official sponsorship agreement holder with the federal government. That means it has signed agreement with the government to support refugees when they settle in Canada, usually by helping smaller groups sponsor individuals or families. 

A couple of years ago, the MCC worked with just a handful of sponsors, usually people looking to bring over members of their own families or ethnic communities, Dyck said.

Then, in September, the photo of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler found face down on a Turkish beach, surfaced online.

"Since September, there's been a lot of interest. People having no connections with a refugee in the world anywhere are wanting to help, and the interest in Syrians is extremely high," Dyck said. 

Despite the hurdles, Dyck said many Canadians move forward with their sponsorships even when they don't get matched with the Syrians they expected.

"It is broadening people's understanding of displacement," Dyck said.

Non-Syrians 'overlooked'

Some are choosing to sponsor non-Syrians from the get-go.

"Many of the refugees from other countries who had been in the queue for a long time were being overlooked. There is no media attention to the fact we have had a refugee crisis of more than 30 years in a good part of Africa," John Neufeld, pastor at The Meeting Place church in Winnipeg, told CBC Manitoba

Pastor John Neufeld of The Meeting Place in Winnipeg says his congregation is excited to be sponsoring a family of Congolese refugees.

With the help of the MCC, The Meeting Place is sponsoring a Congolese family with five children who were all born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. 

A group in Kings County, N.S., chose to sponsor a Somali Bantu couple with six children who have spent the last 15 years in a Kenyan camp. Their oldest child is 13.

"They've raised all six kids in a refugee camp," Anne van Arragon Hutten, fundraiser for the Centreville and Aldershot Refugee Sponsorship group, told CBC News. "We need to get these people out."

While they originally envisioned sponsoring a Syrian family, Laforet's group in Oakville decided to sponsor a family of three from Burma (also known as Myanmar). The mom, dad and two-year-old girl arrived in Oakville last week from a Malaysian camp.

"We just came to the realization that it's not just Syrians that are in need," Laforet said.