McCallum promise to boost privately sponsored Syrian refugees spawns confusion

Immigration Minister John McCallum is promising to address complaints from private sponsors over delays in the arrival of Syrian refugees. But anxious officials in his office were forced to clarify late Thursday an apparent pledge by the minister to make room for additional applications.

'We're going all out to meet the demand,' immigration minister says

Abdelkader, 10, Morhaf, 20 months, and Khadija, 5, enjoy a play group for Syrian refugee children organized by Ottawa Community Health Centres to provide early childhood education development on March 9. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Immigration Minister John McCallum promised Thursday to process all applications from sponsorship agreement holders wishing to help resettle Syrian refugees, following complaints from private sponsors over delays in the arrivals of Syrians.

But anxious officials in McCallum's office were forced to clarify late Thursday what seemed like a pledge by the minister earlier in the day to process an additional 10,000 applications from private sponsorship groups.

McCallum was in Berlin Thursday to meet with Germany's Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière.

"This question of whether an additional 10,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugee applications will be processed in 2016 has caused some confusion," officials in McCallum's office said in an email to CBC News.

"The critical message is that IRCC will not be processing 10,000 additional privately sponsored Syrian refugees."

Government officials told CBC the Department of Immigration will ensure the "timely processing" of all privately sponsored applications submitted up until today — March 31.

In addition to that, the government is removing a 10,500 cap it had previously put in place for applications from sponsorship agreement holders who responded to the government's plea for help in resettling Syrian refugees.

Officials in McCallum's office explained to CBC that if the department receives more than 10,500 applications for privately sponsored refugees, that means there would be less room for privately sponsored refugees from other countries. Similarly, if fewer applications are received for Syrian refugees, then more could be resettled privately from other countries.

"The overall target of 17,800 for privately sponsored refugees remains the same," government officials clarified late Thursday.

In a phone interview with CBC News from Berlin earlier in the day, McCallum said "We are doing everything we can to accommodate the very welcomed desire on the part of Canadians to sponsor refugees."

"Already we have 44,000 — we have four times that are resettled refugees than before — and now in addition, I'm adding this commitment to honour the 10,000 in our inventory of privately sponsored refugees by the end of 2016. So that's a further increase. So it's way more than ever before in recent history," McCallum said Thursday morning before the clarification from his officials.

"We're going all out to meet the demand," he said.

Some changes welcomed despite 'confusion'

Today's announcement comes after former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who is part of a group sponsoring a Syrian refugee family, organized an "emergency meeting" last night to discuss delays in the arrivals of privately sponsored Syrians.

Despite the apparent "confusion," Brian Dyck, the chair of the Sponsorship Agreement Holders Council, told CBC News he welcomed McCallum's announcement.

"We had asked that Syrian applications submitted from Jan. 1 to March 1 not be counted in the cap and they extended that up to March 31," Dyck said on Thursday after his group received a letter from the minister detailing the new changes.

In the letter, obtained independently by CBC News, McCallum said that "all privately sponsored refugee applications already submitted for Syrian refugees — that is, up to March 31, 2016 — will be in addition to the spaces we will be making available for sponsorship agreement holders as part of the usual allocation process for 2016, and will not be counted against the cap of 10,500."

He also said the government would do its best to ensure that processing more applications for privately sponsored refugees from Syria would not result in delays for refugees coming from other countries.

"The department will try to minimize the impact on drawing down the inventory of non-Syrian privately sponsored refugees in 2016," McCallum said in the letter sent to the Canadian Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association last night. 

"This is a significant letter," said Dyck the chair of the SAH council. "It basically gave us everything we asked for and a bit more."

'Smoke and mirrors'

While McCallum is making more room for privately sponsored refugees from Syria, he said the processing of their applications won't be finalized "before the end of 2016 or early in 2017."

Thomas Vincent, the co-chair of the Collingwood Syrian family sponsorship group, called today's announcement "smoke and mirrors," saying it will do nothing to get privately sponsored refugees here faster.

Vincent represents a group of private sponsors in the town of Collingwood, Ont., who have raised $90,000 to sponsor two Syrian families.

According to Vincent, the Collingwood group submitted what the government calls a blended visa office-referred (BVORs) application, which will allow the Syrian families to receive income support for at least 12 months through a mix of private and public funds.

But without additional resources in place to speed up their applications, Vincent said, "It's smoke and mirrors. We're back in the same spot. Nothing has really changed."

"To me it's a political out," Vincent told CBC News in phone interview Thursday.

Vincent said the government should work with the private sector to deliver better results.

"The government has an opportunity here to take a look at the private sector and turn around and see what we've been able to do faster, quicker, better than the government and save them millions of dollars."

Vincent said the Collingwood group has had hundreds of volunteers on standby ready to help with housing, language, transportation and computer services to help the Syrian refugees integrate into their new communities.

"Meanwhile, we just sit and wait," Vincent said.

80% of refugees in permanent homes

The Liberal government has resettled just over 26,000 Syrian refugees since coming into power on Nov 4. That includes 15,001 government-assisted refugees, 8,981 privately sponsored refugees, and 2,225 refugees resettled through a mix of public and private funding, according to numbers posted on the government website on March 28.

Vincent also noted that private groups were prepared to temporarily lodge some of the government-assisted refugees that are still being lodged in hotels while they wait for the Syrian families to arrive.

But McCallum told CBC News that 80 per cent of the 15,000 government-assisted refugees are now in permanent housing.

The immigration minister acknowledged that today's announcement will not please everyone.

"The Sponsorship Agreement Holders Council has expressed satisfaction with this  ... now I understand that not everyone is necessarily happy, but I think we've gone out of our way to create maximum room for privately sponsored refugees."

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With a file from CBC's Jennifer Chevalier