By the Refugee 613 Team
Canadian sponsors and Syrian newcomers. Photo thanks to the Mennonite Central Committee, one of Canada’s most prolific private sponsors of refugees
Have you ever been asked “How can I sponsor my family to join me in Canada?”
At Refugee 613, we are asked this question almost daily, as are our partners in settlement, sponsorship and immigration law. In every case, the loved ones they want to sponsor are living in unsafe, unstable places. The stress and worry is etched on their faces, and makes it impossible for them to feel settled here in Canada.
What makes it even more heartbreaking is that our answer always begins with “It’s complicated” — and now, it’s even more complicated for refugees from Syria and Iraq.
That’s because the federal government announced on Jan. 25 that it will not accept any more applications this year from Groups of 5 (G5s to sponsor Syrians and Iraqis who do not have valid proof of refugee status. The 1,000 person cap they put in place just before Christmas has already been reached.
What does that mean, exactly?
It means if you were hoping to submit a Group of 5 (G5) application to sponsor refugees who are Syrian or Iraqi nationals this year and you have not yet submitted your application, you shouldn’t until you have done more research. It will not be accepted unless the person you want to sponsor has acquired documentation from the UNHCR or a state formally recognizing him or her as a refugee. These documents are currently only being issued to a very limited number of refugees in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, the countries to which most Syrian and Iraqi refugees have fled. The government’s cap therefore applies to the majority of refugees from Syria and Iraq, which is a heavy blow to many — including the more than 50,000 people resettled here as part of the federal government’s Syrian Resettlement Project, and the tens of thousands of Canadians hoping to submit a sponsorship application this year.
Why is there a cap in the first place?
For many years the government of Canada did not limit G5 applications for sponsorship, but it also did not dedicate enough resources to process the volume of applications submitted. Over time, an immense backlog of private sponsorship applications developed, estimated to now stand at more than 45,000 individuals from all over the world, including Eritrea, Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In an effort to reduce the number of new applications while trying to clear the backlog, in 2012 the federal government introduced the status document requirement for all refugees. In response to public demand, an exception was made for Syrians and Iraqis, starting in September 2015 and renewed in September, 2016. At the same time, other refugee groups were still required to have the status documents in order to be sponsored by G5s. Some were waiting long before the documentation exemption was created for Syrians and Iraqis, and they are still waiting.
Then, last December 19, the government announced the exemption for Syrians and Iraqis would apply to only 1,000 individuals in 2017.
The announcement this week indicates that it took only a few weeks to reach the 1,000 mark.
It also underscores that there is still a huge eagerness in Canada to sponsor refugees. Canadians believe in sponsorship as a powerful tool not just for resettling vulnerable people, but for building vibrant communities.
Anyone working with refugees knows this — we regularly meet sponsors who marvel at the new relationships they have built with old neighbours, at the bond they have developed with the newcomers they are supporting. They also speak of the thousands of newly arrived refugees whose lives in Canada are stalled by their fears for those left behind.
So what can you do?
Refugee 613 has consulted our partners in sponsorship to compile the following advice. Please keep in mind that because the sponsorship system is complicated and multifaceted, we may receive corrections or updates that will change this advice. If that happens, we will update this post and share it on our Facebook and Twitter pages.
1. Check to see if the refugees you want to sponsor have the Refugee Status Determination document. It’s important to note that a registration document from the UNHCR is not a status document, and that receiving a stipend from UNHCR is not proof that someone has been recognized as a refugee. When a refugee registers with the UNHCR or a foreign state, they are registered as an asylum seeker whose claim for refugee protection must still be assessed before being formally recognized as a refugee and issued status documentation. The type of document issued can vary from country to country. In some cases, these documents are issued by the host country, in others by the UNHCR. The majority of Syrians living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey do not have the required documentation, because those countries have rarely issued them to Syrians.
If you intend to sponsor refugees who are not Syrian or Iraqi, you should still check whether they have the necessary documents. Some refugee populations are more likely to have them than others. If you are not sure if you have the proper documentation, you can contact the uOttawa Refugee Sponsorship Support Program (SSP) or the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program to double check.
2. Consult the experts. The SSP lawyers provide free assistance to Canadians in completing sponsorship applications. If you are already working with an SSP lawyer on your application, you may have already heard from him or her. If not, reach out and ask if your group has been affected by this cap. Or you can send one member of your group to one of the SSP legal clinics to get advice — contact the SSP to find out when their next clinic is happening, or watch for the Refugee 613 newsletter for private sponsors (if you are not on our mailing list, please sign up here to receive regular updates about events, workshops and opportunities for private sponsors and the refugees they are supporting).
3. Talk to a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH). A SAH may be able to help you submit your application, because refugees sponsored by SAHs do not require status documents. However, this too is a limited route, because SAHs face other restrictions in the number of individuals they can apply to sponsor each year. The government has capped the number of refugees that SAHs can apply to sponsor at 7,500 for 2017. These spaces will be divided among SAHs across Canada, and many spaces are already earmarked for specific cases, so the availability of spaces with SAHs is extremely limited. If a SAH cannot help you in 2017, ask if they have waitlists for future years.
You can find a list of SAHs in Ottawa on the Refugee 613 Sponsorship page, and SAHs elsewhere in Canada on the government’s website. Please keep in mind that many SAHs are faith groups and other community organizations whose operations depend on volunteers, making it hard for them to answer inquiries and meet the needs of large numbers of potential sponsors.
4. Continue to compile your G5 or CS application. Refugee processing systems can change unexpectedly. While we have no information suggesting this will happen, it is possible a sudden change in policy, in Canada or abroad, could open up new, time-sensitive avenues for sponsorship. If that happens, you will want to have your application ready to submit as soon as possible.
5. Educate and engage. Call your local MP and let him or her know what you think of the caps on refugee sponsorship, both for G5s and SAHs. Do more reading to know the system better, starting with the links below. Donate to refugee advocacy organizations such as the Canadian Council for Refugees. Share this post on social media and raise your voice whenever you can.
Canadian Council for Refugees: http://ccrweb.ca/en/private-sponsorship-refugees-2017 and http://ccrweb.ca/en/psr-toolkit/home
Refugee Sponsorship Training Program: http://www.rstp.ca/en/
Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association: http://www.sahassociation.com/
Write to your Member of Parliament: http://www.lop.parl.gc.ca/ParlInfo/Compilations/HouseOfCommons/MemberByPostalCode.aspx?Menu=HOC
If you have questions, comments or clarifications for us, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org