By Kristen Shane
Cleaning up the backlog will take time. Meanwhile, the immigration department has imposed a cap on new applications.
In the summer of 2010, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney criss-crossed Canada encouraging private organizations like gay and lesbian groups to sponsor refugees to come to Canada.
"With respect to gay and lesbian refugees, I’m often approached saying : ’Look, we’re aware of a case of someone in Turkey who had to flee Iran, they had a blog or something, can you help them ?’
"And we do what we can on a limited basis, but I’m saying perhaps it’s time for those organizations to step up and do so in a more organized fashion," the CBC reported Mr. Kenney saying at a Catholic immigration centre in Ottawa on June 29.
David Pepper heard the call. He took a sabbatical from his job at the Ottawa Police Service and hit the road for three months, paying his own way to travel to 21 Canadian cities and mobilize gay and lesbian communities to sponsor gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer refugees in other parts of the world. He called it the North Star Triangle Project. Specifically, he talked about Group of Five and community sponsorships. Both are ways to bring refugees to Canada in a stream separate from the government-sponsored program.
A Group of Five is an ad hoc group of any five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who come together to act as guarantors. They financially and emotionally support a refugee coming to Canada being resettled in his or her first year. Community sponsors do the same thing as an organization, association or corporation.
The government has pushed private groups to sponsor refugees partly to take the economic burden of settlement off the public system and partly to shore up civic pride.
Mr. Pepper gathered his own Group of Five and found a refugee to sponsor. In March, on the eve of the last federal election, Mr. Kenney announced that Citizenship and Immigration Canada would give $100,000 for a pilot project to support gay and lesbian refugees resettling in Canada.
Mr. Pepper hoped to take advantage of that program, but was told that to do it his Group of Five would need to work with a Sponsorship Agreement Holder, another kind of group that sponsors refugees.
Sponsorship Agreement Holders sign agreements with the immigration minster to assume liability for the management of sponsorships under their agreement. They are typically religious or ethno-cultural groups experienced in bringing in refugees.
His group started working with an Ottawa church that had sponsored more than 100 refugees.
But now, the Sponsorship Agreement Holder he’s working with is unsure it can help. It is set to be strapped with a quota starting on Jan. 1, capping the number of applications it can make to sponsor refugees to come to Canada.
Mr. Pepper says he was told at first that his kind of sponsorship wouldn’t count toward the Sponsorship Agreement Holder’s quota. But in recent weeks, he’s learned it could.
"They can’t afford to give up one of their quota," said Mr. Pepper in an interview on Nov. 7.
He said he’s talked to other groups wanting to sponsor gay refugees who are in similar situations.
"Everyone is a combination of frustrated and confused by what are really mixed messages from the government," said Mr. Pepper. "They can’t make it sound simple : ’Go out and do a Group of Five and do your job as good Canadian citizens,’ and then kind of muddy the waters with what really appear to be, from everyone I talk to, restrictions and contractions of our international commitments."
His group is now rushing to finish its application before the cap is imposed on Jan 1.
And it’s not just one Sponsorship Agreement Holder facing new limitations. Citizenship and Immigration Canada is, for the first time that several agreement holders can remember, capping the number of new refugee sponsorship applications of all of the roughly 90 Sponsorship Agreement Holders across Canada to 1,350 in 2012.
A large Manitoba agreement holder says that it alone filed that many applications in the first eight months of 2011.
Some agreement holders worry about the sector’s viability, and the safety of the refugees they’ll have to turn away. Others say they’re happy the government is working to tame the out-of-control backlog, but the process it followed was not transparent and it didn’t consider a variety of options before deciding on a drastic cap.
Bid to cut backlog
Even with that cap, CIC spokesperson Bill Brown says the department still expects to receive about 4,000 new applications.
"Large backlogs have developed as we continue to face spikes in applications submitted that exceed the number of resettlement places available," said Mr. Brown in an email to Embassy on Nov. 7.
"While several initiatives have been introduced to streamline application processing, improve service and reduce processing times, the inventory of privately-sponsored refugee...applications will continue to grow and processing times will continue to lengthen unless there is a significant decrease in the number of incoming applications."
There were 14,928 privately-sponsored refugee applications in the queue in 2006, which grew to more than 23,200 in June 2011 (including those submitted by Groups of Five, community sponsors and Sponsorship Agreement Holders). While at some visa offices it might take as little as 11 months, it takes as long as five years to process a complete application submitted in a Nairobi, Kenya visa office.
Of the backlogged applications, Groups of Five submitted about one-third, and community sponsors less than one per cent. While Sponsorship Agreement Holders will be getting new contracts including application quotas, Mr. Brown said "it is expected that the Group of Five stream can be managed through different means currently under development." Those familiar with the stream say they’re hearing rumours of new limits too.
Mr. Brown did not say whether restrictions would be put on the small number of community sponsorship applications received. Quebec, meanwhile, which largely runs its own immigration system, has said it isn’t affected by the new caps.
It accepts an average of 400 to 500 privately-sponsored refugees a year, although Immigration and Cultural Communities ministry spokesperson Réal Grégoire said the Quebec government agrees with the federal backlog reduction principle.
Elephant in the room
To cut down the number of applications already sitting in line, the immigration department says it’s boosting the target number of privately-sponsored refugees admitted to Canada to 6,500 annually by 2013, up from 3,338 in 2006.
"I believe that it was really good that finally somebody took the initiative and addressed this issue," said Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto office for refugees spokesperson Martin Mark, of the change.
"The elephant was in the room, nobody really talked about it, and the backlog was increasing for years and years."
Citizenship and Immigration Canada has been talking to Sponsorship Application Holders about the potential for less intake since the start of this year, he said. But he was shocked to learn just how few applications they would be able to submit in total in 2012.
His organization alone submitted about 600 sponsorship applications this year alone. He said he hadn’t been told his group’s quota for next year yet, but expected a dramatic cut.
Mr. Mark said he was concerned that Citizenship and Immigration Canada lacked transparency and took a top-down approach to implement the caps.
"We do have expertise, and great ideas, which should have been considered, and it was not considered when creating these annual allocations or visa post sub-caps and all these methods which are in place now," he said. Each visa post has its own processing cap separate from the sponsor-based application caps to be put in place.
"I think that also the issue is that the Group of Five and community sponsors question is not resolved yet—it shows that it’s not as transparent and accountable a system as I wish to see," Mr. Mark added.
’You can’t just turn the pipe on and off’
The church-sponsored Hospitality House Refugee Ministry in Winnipeg, Manitoba may be worse off. Its staff says it sponsors the largest number of privately-sponsored refugees in Canada, and perhaps even the world, since no other country has such a private sponsorship refugee program.
The privately-sponsored system allows for family reunifications of refugees who may have arrived in Canada alone, but have other family members in similar circumstances waiting to join them.
Hospitality House alone filed applications for 1,350 refugees (the total number to be accepted nationally next year) in the first eight months of 2011. If divided equally among the 90 Sponsorship Agreement Holders, each would be allowed to submit only 15 sponsorships next year.
"Essentially we’re not going to do any next year," said Karin Gordon, the group’s executive director of settlement, adding that even when Sponsorship Agreement Holders are able to file a "more reasonable" number of applications, they will still be constrained by yearly caps.
Mr. Brown said the 1,350-cap is not permanent. The department expects that in about three to four years its inventory will be down to working levels, which will mean it can accommodate more applications.
Ms. Gordon gets a daily view of what’s behind the numbers game. She is in charge of most of the intake work on sponsorship applications for Hospitality House.
"We’ll continue. But it will be difficult, and particularly having to turn people away. Because the stories that I process every day—I have to summarize the stories of persecution that people have suffered overseas—it makes my heart bleed, really, when I read these stories of torture and repression and assassinations and attacks and rapes," she says.
Other groups may just give up doing private refugee sponsorship without the ability to submit more than a handful of applications, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. Groups can’t maintain staff to do no work, she said. A few years from now, if the government has absorbed the backlog and wants to start boosting application numbers again, the capacity may no longer exist, she said.
"You can’t just turn the pipe on and off in that way," said Ms. Dench.
The government should raise the number of privately-sponsored refugees it admits every year to address the backlog in the short term, she said.
Mr. Brown said reconfiguring Canada’s visa office network in Africa and/or adding resources to existing visa offices "are high-cost, long-term options which the Department is considering."
But, he said, "simply increasing resources is not the answer." When the number of applications submitted each year far exceeds the number of persons admitted, he said, wait times inevitably go up.
Ms. Dench says caps aren’t the answer to the backlog problem.
"There shouldn’t be a limit on Canadian generosity."