John McCallum promises probe into immigration consultants' fees for Syrian refugees

Immigration Minister John McCallum says he has ordered a three-part investigation into allegations that immigration consultants are targeting vulnerable Syrian refugees and charging them thousands of dollars to process their applications to come to Canada.

CBC News investigation reveals some consultants are possibly violating federal rules on private sponsorship

Immigration Minister John McCallum responds to concerns that some private immigration consultants are violating the rules of the private refugee sponsorship program. 5:26

Immigration Minister John McCallum says he has ordered a three-part investigation into the practice of immigration consultants charging Syrian refugees thousands of dollars to process applications and possibly violating federal rules on private sponsorship by asking them to pay resettlement costs that should be paid by their sponsors.

"We are very concerned about this, and we want to explore all avenues as to possible wrongdoing," McCallum told Rosemary Barton on CBC's Power & Politics Tuesday.

The minister was responding to a CBC News investigation that found that some immigration consultants are charging Syrians who want to come to Canada under the private sponsorship program between $3,000 to $6,400 per person to process their applications.

The Ayash family from Syria pose at the airport in Halifax in February. The family is being sponsored by a community group in Lunenburg, N.S. Communities across Canada have been raising money to privately sponsor refugees, but a CBC investigation found that some immigration consultants are asking Syrians form Gulf states to pay settlement funds that are supposed to be paid by their sponsors. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The investigation also found that some consultants are asking refugees to pay the cost of their resettlement in Canada up front before even arriving in the country. Under federal rules, these costs are supposed to be covered by private sponsors, not refugees, for a full year. Refugees can contribute to their settlement costs once they arrive in Canada but cannot be made to prepay or repay them, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

McCallum said he has asked for investigations on three fronts:

  • Law-enforcement agencies will determine whether any laws have been broken.
  • The Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC), which oversees immigration consultants in Canada, will determine whether any of its rules have been broken.
  • Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada will determine whether any sponsorship agreement holders have violated federal rules. If they did, those agreements could be nullified. 
Given how generous the vast majority of Canadians have been, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.- John McCallum, immigration minister

"I do think it's a serious allegation. Given how generous the vast majority of Canadians have been, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth," McCallum said. "With this three-front investigation, we should get some answers."

McCallum said the investigation will also look into why immigration consultants are getting involved in the refugee sponsorship process at all.

"I don't see why they're there," he said. 

CBC News revealed Tuesday that some immigration consultants, in partnership with some refugee sponsorship groups, have been marketing their services to Syrians living in the Gulf states, many of whom are there on work permits and make potentially more lucrative clients than refugees in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey.

Syrian refugees in Gulf states being asked to pay settlement funds that are supposed to be paid by private sponsors 1:58

In some instances, the consultants are asking refugees to pay costs and "donation" amounts that violate the financial guidelines of the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.

The federal government does not charge refugee applicants or their sponsors any fees to process applications. Usually, refugees pay only for the medical checks they must undergo before arriving in Canada and the cost of their travel, and in some cases, these costs are waived or covered by a loan from the federal government.

Canada has resettled more than 26,000 Syrian refugees between November 2015 and the end of March, 15,001 of whom are government-assisted refugees, 8,981 privately sponsored and 2,225 a mix of public and privately funded.

Issue surfaces in Question Period

The questions raised around the role of immigration consultants in the refugee program also came up in Question Period. Conservative MP Bob Saroya urged McCallum to "close the door" on "crooked immigration consultants" who are "taking advantage of the most vulnerable."

Conservative MP John Brassard grills Immigration Minister John McCallum on the questionable practices of some immigration consultants 1:05

His colleague Conservative MP John Brassard asked: "What is the minister doing to protect legitimate refugees fleeing a dangerous situation from being defrauded?"

McCallum responded by saying that if wrongdoing is found, sanctions could range from sponsorship groups having their agreements terminated to individuals or organizations being criminally charged.

"This behaviour is not tolerated by this government, and perpetrators will be held to account," the minister said.

​'Possible exploitation of vulnerable refugees'

The revelations have also drawn sharp rebukes from some organizations that work with refugees.

Lifeline Syria spokesman Peter Goodspeed said his organization, which trains refugee sponsors and has been heavily involved in Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis, "is concerned about any reports of the possible exploitation of vulnerable refugees."

Fast to Canada, a Mississauga, Ont.-based immigration consulting firm, is one of the companies named in a CBC report that found that some immigration consultants are profiting from the wave of Syrian refugees desperate to make their way to Canada. (CBC)

"Because of the issues involved in having for-profit consultants or advisers prepare sponsorship applications, Lifeline Syria has made it a deliberate policy to work exclusively with pro-bono lawyers who have been vetted by the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program," he said. 

Toronto lawyer Jackie Swaisland is one such lawyer. She is part of a network of lawyers, immigration consultants and law students that has helped hundreds of refugees get to Canada without charging for their services.

""I find it appalling, honestly," she said of the fees consultants are charging.

The agency that certifies immigration consultants in Canada reiterated on Tuesday that it does not regulate consultants' fees but urged its members to heed the council's code of ethics and professional guidelines. 

"ICCRC reminded its some 3,600 members earlier this morning of their obligation to carry out their professional services as regulated Canadian immigration consultants in good faith, obeying the laws, regulations, rules and policies that affect their scope of practice, and that failure to do so can lead to disciplinary action," spokesman Daniel Roukema said. 

These allegations concern us greatly, and we are employing all resources available to us to uncover the truth.- Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council

The council said it welcomes McCallum's directive to have the ICCRC look in into whether consultants are violating federal rules on sponsorship and will share its findings with the minister.

"These allegations concern us greatly, and we are employing all resources available to us to uncover the truth and to ensure that all Canadian immigration consultants carry out their duties with the highest standards of ethical practice," ICRCC said in a statement.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants issued its own statement.

"CAPIC is deeply concerned by reports that the rules governing the private sponsorship of refugees may not have been followed," it said. "We stand ready to support any efforts by the ICCRC or the government of Canada to investigate these allegations and bring any guilty parties to justice."

It did not, however, address the question of whether consultants should be charging refugees thousand of dollars for their services.