Canada should talk 'growing pains' with countries looking to mimic Syrian refugee program, senator says

The Canadian government is holding up its private sponsorship model as an example for other countries bringing in Syrian refugees, but the chairman of the Senate's human rights committee says there are still urgent concerns with the program, including long delays.

'I think "caution" would be the watchword ... in terms of exporting what we've done,' says Jim Munson

Naya, 6, is one of many Syrian refugees waiting to come to Canada. In a phone interview with CBC News, Naya said one of her favourite activities is to colour. Her parents, Majd and Leen, said she drew a picture of what she expects to see in Canada. (Supplied by Syrian refugee family Majd, Leen and Naya)

The federal government should acknowledge the shortcomings of Canada's Syrian refugee program as it holds it up as a model for other countries, the chairman of the Senate's human rights committee says.

"I think 'caution' would be the watchword ... in terms of exporting what we've done," Senator Jim Munson told CBC News. "We should be telling other countries, 'but here are the growing pains.'" 

Canadian civil servants 'did yeomen's service' to process the initial influx of 25,000 Syrian refugees late last year and early this year, Senator Jim Munson said. It's time for the federal government to look at what can be done to speed the processing times up again, he said. (Office of Senator Jim Munson)

Last week, Immigration Minister John McCallum announced the Canadian government would partner with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and billionaire George Soros to help other countries develop private sponsorship programs for refugees. 

McCallum said 13 other countries have already expressed interest in Canada's model. 

But in June, Munson's committee pointed out "urgent concerns" with Canada's Syrian refugee program, including inadequate access to English and French language-training programs and the need for a plan to address the mental health needs of refugees who have experienced trauma.   

"We certainly still have concerns," Munson said. "I'm not really sure much ... more has been done since our observations or recommendations that came out at the end of June."

Although a lot of good work has already been achieved in bringing more than 30,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, he said, "we can't rest on our laurels as a nation."  

One of the issues Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month was the world's refugee crisis. Canada has been praised for welcoming and resettling more than 30,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015. (Getty Images)

One significant concern that needs to be addressed, Munson said, is the number of months it takes to process Syrian refugees who have been matched with private sponsors in Canada.  

"You can imagine the anxiety," he said. "People ... have sponsored refugees and they're not arriving when they were supposed to be arriving.

"I think it must be painful for them and even more painful for those who had expected to come earlier to our country."

'Our life stopped'

A member of a Syrian family anxiously waiting in Lebanon says they feel "sometimes sad and sometimes depressed and sometimes angry" that it's been seven months since they were interviewed by Canadian officials. 

"We feel that our life stopped and we can't do anything," Housam said in a telephone interview from Beirut.

Housam, his sister Leen and brother-in-law Majd asked that their last names not be published out of concern their application to come to Canada might be affected.  

Majd and Leen were hoping to be in Canada in time for their six-year-old daughter, Naya, to start the school year. 

"We have sponsors, amazing sponsors, that are waiting," Housam said. "We are looking for someplace that we can live normally as a human being."

Leen and Housam's elderly parents are also with them in Beirut, and keep asking when they will get a call saying they can go to Canada. 

"Every day it's the same question," Leen said. "It's hard for us all."

The wait is also frustrating for the Toronto group privately sponsoring the family of six.

Immigration Minister John McCallum greets Syrian refugees at Pearson International Airport last winter. Senator Jim Munson says although McCallum has done a good job, more resources should be directed to helping the newcomers. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"We thought that the family would be here by now ... well on their way to being settled," said Doug Earl, one of the sponsors. "They're languishing in Beirut where they can't work."

"They have a fairly precarious position," he said. "They can't stay there, they can't go back [to Syria] ... so their only choice is to move on."

The amount of time taken to process Syrian applications has increased since the government's big push to meet its commitment of bringing in 25,000 refugees in late 2015 and early 2016. 

The initial expected processing time was three to six months, said Earl, who is also a spokesman for Canada 4 Refugees, an advocacy organization for private sponsors. He said that timeframe has increased to eight or nine months. 

Groups across the country trying to help Syrian refugees start out with "a great deal of enthusiasm," he said, but "as the process drags out, people's enthusiasm naturally wanes somewhat."

"It's just a kind of a squandering of an opportunity to harness that enthusiasm and that momentum and keep it going."

Want 'momentum to continue'

That concerns Saleem Spindari, manager of refugee settlement at MOSAIC, a charity serving newcomers in Vancouver.

Saleem Spindari, manager of refugee settlement support projects at MOSAIC in Vancouver, says Canada's private sponsorship model for refugees is a great program, but he worries that delays in bringing Syrian refugees to Canada may discourage sponsors. (MOSAIC B.C.)

"The reality is we want the momentum to continue because Canadians have responded to the human call of many refugees after seeing gruesome pictures of people trying to flee [Syria] using dangerous routes," Spindari said. "People are really on board to be part of this initiative. The more delays, the more people that we would lose."

"If we open it up and we brag about how good [the refugee program] is, we have really to meet their needs when private sponsors come to try to sponsor more individuals."

A spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the additional resources and special measures put in place earlier in the "Syrian resettlement initiative" were temporary.  

"We know refugees and sponsors are disappointed that expedited processing could not continue, but Canada's ongoing response to the refugee crisis must be done in a sustainable way," Nancy Caron said in an emailed statement to CBC News. "We know that there are other refugees around the world who are also awaiting approval of their private sponsorship application."

"It is important to remember that the processing of Syrian refugee cases has never stopped. Work has continued in earnest over the summer to finalize as many cases as possible and we have been processing new referrals received from the United Nations Refugee Agency," Caron said.

According to the department's website, more than 30,862 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, 2015. Of those, 11,360 have been privately sponsored. 

As of Sept. 18, 19,626 Syrian refugee resettlement applications were "in progress" and 3,789 had been finalized, but the refugees had not yet travelled to Canada.

About the Author

Nicole Ireland

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from Laura Lynch