Syrian refugee sponsors upset with slowing pace of arrivals
On eve of UN summit, groups ask Liberals to reconsider cuts, caps on refugee program
They have houses lined up, pantries stocked with rice, pasta and canned goods, plans for airport pickups and thousands of dollars in the bank, but what hundreds of refugee sponsorship groups don't have is confirmation they'll actually welcome a Syrian family into their communities any time soon.
As Immigration Minister John McCallum attends a high-level UN meeting on Syrian refugee resettlement this week, sponsorship groups in Canada are asking him to reconsider the application caps and processing cuts made to the Syrian program for this year that will see some arrivals delayed, possibly until next year.
Guelph, Ont., businessman Jim Estill made headlines last year when he committed to sponsoring 50 Syrian families. All of the applications were submitted by mid-January and so far, five families have arrived. He doesn't understand how 25,000 people could be brought here in three months, but fewer will take three times as long.
"To bring in 10,000 shouldn't be rocket science," he said. "They are going to lose momentum and they are going to lose support."
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On Nova Scotia's North Shore, more than 65 people have been working together for months to try and sponsor a family of six. They're waiting to be matched with a family under the program that sees the government share resettlement costs with private groups.
Ron MacNutt, the spokesperson for the North Shore Refugee Settlement Group, says his group is working to keep momentum going. He said the group's major sponsors are onside and willing to wait and the issue still comes up each week at church, though there is disappointment at the delay.
"It started out as an act of charity and goodwill," he said. "It's not like we're trying to fill a quota, we are just trying to help.
"But not everyone is OK with the process."
The government's use of the blended visa program has been uneven, with weeks going by before names appeared on the list. On March 14, a few hundred names appeared but were matched within 24 hours. The next set is expected any day.
To date, just over 2,200 Syrians have arrived under the blended visa program. The target for the program — both Syrian and non-Syrian cases — is only 2,400 for this year, raising questions about how many more people may be accepted.
"Options to increase the number of (blended visa) arrivals in 2016, while remaining within overall levels that have been set, are being considered," Immigration Department spokesperson Faith St-John said in an email.
6,600 cases still in the system
McCallum is among the keynote speakers at the UN summit in Geneva and he'll focus some of his remarks on the private sponsorship program, which is one of only a few such programs in the world.
Since the end of November, about 9,000 Syrians have come to Canada under the program, under which private groups commit to covering resettlement costs for a year. They are part of the overall Liberal program to resettle 25,000 people by the end of February.
But efforts have been scaled back and fewer staff are churning through the roughly 6,600 cases in the pipeline.
The government also imposed caps on the number of applications it will accept this year, common practice in recent years for refugee policy but unique for the Syrian program.
The Immigration Department says any applications submitted after Jan. 1 will be counted against the cap. Applications submitted now are not expected to arrive this year as the current backlog exceeds the target, St-John said.
The total target for privately sponsored refugees from around the world this year is 17,800.