Ottawa dispatches 40 more staff to Mideast to reduce Syrian refugee backlog

The federal government appears to be taking some steps to hasten the arrival of privately sponsored Syrian refugees, but sponsorship groups who have grown disappointed with Ottawa's efforts say they will keep up the pressure despite some "good news."

Private refugee sponsors vow to keep up pressure despite 'good news' on staffing boost

Immigration Minister John McCallum announced a staffing boost last week to help clear the backlog in private refugee sponsorship applications, and on Monday the government said 40 additional staff will be dispatched to Canadian visa offices in the Middle East, where they will spend the next seven weeks finalizing applications. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal government appears to be taking some steps to hasten the arrival of privately sponsored Syrian refugees, but sponsorship groups who have grown disappointed with Ottawa's efforts say they will keep up the pressure despite some "good news." 

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said that over 40 additional staff are being dispatched to Canadian visa offices in the Middle East, where they will spend the next seven weeks finalizing applications for privately sponsored refugees.

The update comes after Immigration Minister John McCallum told a Commons committee last Thursday that a staffing boost was underway, though no details were immediately available.

"Over 40 additional dedicated staff are joining employees already working in visa offices in the Middle East to process these applications in May and June," said Lisa Filipps, an immigration spokeswoman, in response to a query from CBC News.

"Employees are located in different countries, with the bulk of the processing occurring in Beirut. These efforts are supported by dozens of staff in Canada," Filipps said in an email.

Last week, the Immigration Department told CBC that "more than 65 full-time employees" are working in visa offices in Amman, Ankara and Beirut.

John Sewell, the former Toronto mayor who has become a spokesman for private sponsors in Ontario and is now in the process of forming a national group, says it's a step in the right direction, but it's not enough to process thousands of applications.

"It's a start," said Sewell in a phone interview Monday. "It's better than nothing, but I don't think it responds to the actual need."

Approximately 500 government officials worked on the Liberal government's initiative to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees (a mix of government-assisted refugees and privately sponsored ones) between last November and the end of February.

Priority for 'cases in the pipeline'

Sewell said he did receive some "positive news" from Adam Vaughan, the Liberal MP for Spadina -Fort York, who called him over the weekend to say the Immigration Department "will try to prioritize" those refugees who have been matched with Canadian sponsors but have yet to arrive in Canada.

"Vaughan said the department is going to give priority to some of those cases in the pipeline."

"That's good news," Sewell said.

According to Sewell, in the past 48 hours alone, 90 to 100 sponsorship groups who fall into this category have contacted his national group for help in relaying their cases to the department.

"It's quite outstanding," he said.

Sewell estimates there are some 9,000 groups that have raised the funds required to sponsor a Syrian refugee family but who are still waiting for their arrival.

On Monday, Vaughan was less forthcoming with details when approached on Parliament Hill by CBC News.

"There's an organization of community members … who are still working to get private sponsorship refugees over and we're working as hard as we can to facilitate that," Vaughan said prior to question period.

"We're just having some conversations," he said.

Vaughan acknowledged the government's boost in staff, but did not offer any details on how the department plans to prioritize the applications of privately sponsored Syrian refugees, or how quickly the government can get these families in Canada.

"We have assigned some staff. We know there is a pent up demand there," he said.

"When citizens come to an MP and say they want some assistance getting service out of the government, your job is to try to help," Vaughan said.