Politics

Syrian refugee sponsors in Ontario town get good news, but frustration remains

A group of residents in Collingwood, Ont., are counting themselves lucky after learning that one of two Syrian refugee families they are sponsoring will be arriving in Canada within the next eight weeks. But hundreds of Canadians continue to grow frustrated with the slow pace of arrivals.

Collingwood learns Syrian refugee family to arrive soon, but many sponsors annoyed with slow pace of arrivals

Groups who are privately sponsoring Syrian refugees in Canada are upset with federal Immigration Minister John McCallum over the slowing pace of resettlement. But one group, in Collingwood, Ont., received good news this week. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

A group of residents in the town of Collingwood, Ont., are counting themselves lucky after learning that one of two Syrian refugee families they are sponsoring will be arriving in Canada within the next eight weeks.

But hundreds of Canadians who responded to the government's plea for help in resettling Syrian families continue to grow frustrated with the slow pace of arrivals.

Thomas Vincent, co-chair of the Collingwood Syrian family sponsorship group, said he received the good news on the same day Immigration Minister John McCallum pledged to make more room for privately sponsored refugees.

CBC News reported on the confusion that ensued following the minister's announcement last Thursday, which government officials later saw fit to clarify.

The Syrian family bound for Collingwood — one girl and four boys under the age of 12, along with their parents — will be coming from Ankara, Turkey. The mother is said to be pregnant with a sixth child due some time in June.

"It's very exciting news," Vincent said during a telephone interview with CBC News on Monday. "I have been critical of the government, but it was terrific to get a call."

Bruce Clark and Ruth Plant, chair of the furniture committee, left, and two residents who have just donated furniture are just some of the hundreds of volunteers in the small town of Collingwood, Ont., ready to help Syrian refugees integrate into their new communities. (www.collingwoodsyriansponsorship.ca)

The Collingwood group is one of many in the country that have denounced the government's decision to scale back the resources it had in place in the Middle East to reach its own goal of fast-tracking the arrival of 25,000 Syrians by the end of February.

According to Vincent, Canadian sponsors are concerned the government isn't being as forthcoming with them as it was with the public when the Liberals first launched the #WelcomeRefugees initiative.

"There's a total lack of transparency," Vincent said on Monday.

'Expedited processing is not continuing'

The Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told CBC News last Friday the government had put in place "additional resources and special measures" to bring those 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, but only for a temporary time.

"We know refugees and sponsors are disappointed that expedited processing is not continuing, but the accelerated pace of recent months could not be sustained indefinitely," spokeswoman Jennifer Bourque said in response to an inquiry from CBC News. 

"Canada's overall response to the refugee crisis must be done in a sustainable and ongoing way."

But in an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics last Thursday, McCallum said he had instructed his department "to expedite" the processing of some 10,000 privately sponsored refugees' applications.

While the department acknowledged the minister's commitment to making additional room for more privately sponsored refugees from Syria, it also said that doing so while it continues to resettle thousands more government-assisted refugees "will slow the pace of arrivals considerably."

Nevertheless, "every effort will be made to finalize the processing of these Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 or early in 2017," Bourque said.

"We also continue to process applications from all immigration streams (refugees, protected persons, humanitarian, family, economic) as quickly as we can."

The government's mixed messaging, according to Vincent, has caused "tremendous ambiguity" among private sponsors trying to plan for refugees' arrivals.

"They're talking out of both sides of their mouths," Vincent said on Monday.

Private sponsors 'increasingly militant'

The Collingwood group learned it would be receiving one Syrian family through the Anglican United Refugee Alliance (AURA), one of many sponsorship agreement holders in the country.

Ian McBride, AURA's executive director, said there's no doubt the government is facing an enormous challenge. 

"The number of groups that want a family to arrive in the relatively near term is enormous and it's bigger than any government, this one or the last one, anticipated would happen."

"All of those groups are going to become, I suspect, increasingly militant," McBride said Monday in an interview with CBC News.

"I don't think there's an easy solution," he added. "But I do think that the only way to potentially deal with it is through a considerable amount of open conversation between all parties."

Some 1,053 privately sponsored refugees and 284 blended visa office-referred refugees have been approved for sponsorship as of March 29 but have yet to arrive in Canada, said department spokeswoman Bourque.

A group of private sponsors in Haliburton have also expressed frustration to the minister.

The Haliburton Refugee Sponsorship Committee, which is also associated with AURA, has raised $47,000 to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

"We've been ready and willing to welcome a family to the Highlands for months. Unfortunately, due to reasons we can't begin to understand, we have not been able to see this through," said Sean Pennylegion, an executive committee member of the group in a letter sent to McCallum Friday and obtained by CBC News.

On Monday, the Toronto for Refugees group, led by former Toronto mayor John Sewell, called on the government to put the resources back in place "without delay" and see to it that their Syrian families arrive "within three months."

"The government should return to its enlightened and enabling policies as they were before February 29," Sewell said on Monday in an email to private sponsors.

McCallum is in Toronto Tuesday for a luncheon speech to the C.D. Howe Institute tilted: "The Future of Canadian Immigration: A Key Pillar to Nation Building."

"Join the John McCallum welcoming party," Sewell said, urging sponsors to show up for a rally before the minister's arrival.

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