Peninsula group wants shorter wait times for refugees

Syrian mother, four children wait as feds work through backlog

Members of SPRIG welcome one refugee at Victoria International Airport in Sept. 2016. They want to sponsor a family, but have waited for almost two years. (Provided)

The Saanich Peninsula Refugee Initiatives Group (SPRIG) has been trying to sponsor a refugee family, but SPRIG and the family have waited almost two years with no end in sight. There is a new petition asking the government to reduce wait times.

The petition was created by the Victoria Advocates for Refugees and sponsored by Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May. It calls on the federal government to, among other requests, eliminate the backlog of private sponsorship applications by the end of 2018. According to Joan Wenman, who initiated the petition with the Victoria group, there were 63 pending applications in the fall of 2017 in May’s riding. May’s riding office said that number has not significantly changed as of today.

Mabel Jean Rawlins, chair of SPRIG, said the petition was passed between groups involved with refugees. SPRIG has been trying to sponsor Safaa, a Syrian mother, and her four children (aged 5-13) who have had to flee their home due to the war. They are currently living in a small apartment in Lebanon, waiting for an application to wind its way through Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada.

Rawlins said the group is anxious to help them and initially thought she would be here within months of her application. Funds donated to support the family have been sitting in a bank account administered by St. John’s United Church. By July 2018, it will have been two years since Safaa first applied.

Rawlins said the group speaks to Safaa every week by Skype to help improve her English and said the mother has “been managing very frugally in a tiny space with children there, waiting and waiting for her application to be accepted.”

According to Rawlins, many refugees do not live in the large camps seen in the media. Instead, they find their way into communities in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, surviving perhaps on money sent from relatives around the world. Rawlins said there are many challenges, including being on her own as a woman in an unfamiliar place. Safaa’s children have also been out of school for a long time, but she is trying to home-school her children as best as she can in the meantime.

In the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberals promised 25,000 Syrian refugees would be resettled by the end of 2015 through immediate government sponsorship. The government did bring in 25,000 by February, but that number was mostly accomplished through private sponsorship. Since that push ended, Rawlins said processing times have slowed.

Sabine Lehr, Private Sponsorship of Refugees Manager at the Inter-Cultural Association (ICA) in Victoria, said refugees can come to Canada using a variety of programs.

Groups of five or more Canadian citizens can pool resources and sponsor refugees, as can community groups like corporations or associations. The Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) Program is a collaboration between private sponsors and the federal government (which is specifically meant for UN-identified refugees). Finally, the Joint Assistance Sponsorship Program is for refugees who might have special needs like medical disabilities or trauma from violence. St. John’s United Church and SPRIG intend to sponsor Safaa and her children as Community Sponsors.

As a Sponsorship Agreement Holder, a group like ICA has been scrutinized and pre-approved to sponsor refugees, so Lehr said in some cases, they can sponsor refugees somewhat faster — but they can only sponsor a limited number of them. For other sponsorship types, the government sometimes takes longer because groups have to be checked to see if they have enough money and a plan.

“I have had people land within a year here … and I’ve had other people who after two years aren’t here because there’s something in the process that’s holding it up,” said Lehr.

Lehr said the government is working through the backlog and has committed to reducing average wait times to one year for applications submitted in January 2020 and beyond. The Canadian Council for Refugees (of which ICA is a member) and other advocacy groups have been asking for shorter wait times.

“As you can imagine, we would all be happy if that happened sooner rather than later…However, we are also aware of the realities of the situation,” said Lehr.

For now, Rawlins can only wait and hope that the public does not forget.

“When it was very top of mind, every day there was something in the media about the 25,000 [refugees]… But now, it’s sort of fallen off the top of the news,” said Rawlins, but she cited the recent chemical attack on Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region and other persecuted minorities like the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

“The urgency is still there,” said Rawlins.

Petition e-1554 is open for signature until July 24 2018 and can be found at petitions.ourcommons.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-1554

Correction (April 20, 2018): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that SPRIG intends to sponsor Safaa and her children through the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program (BVOR). In fact, St. John’s United Church and SPRIG intend to sponsor the family as Community Sponsors, another stream of Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program. The article has been changed to reflect this. Penninsula News Review regrets the error.

reporter@peninsulanewsreview.com

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