Conservative government’s rule overhaul blamed for Syrian refugee backlog

The Conservative government imposed a new rule for potential refugees in 2012 — a change refugee groups say is the reason so few Syrians have made it to Canadian soil.

The rule also appears to have played a key role in the government’s refusal to allow a B.C. woman, Tima Kurdi, to privately sponsor her brother, Mohammed Kurdi and his family.

After Mohammed’s application was returned to Tima, their other brother, Abdullah, tried to flee with his family from Turkey to Greece. Their boat capsized and Abdullah’s two young sons and wife all drowned. Pictures of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed ashore in Turkey shocked the world this week.

The refugee groups say they have repeatedly called on Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and the government to exempt Syrians from the rule — which says the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) or another country must first designate a person as a refugee before immigration officials will consider letting them be privately sponsored to come to .

But they say their requests have been ignored.

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Then-immigration minister Jason Kenney implemented the rule in October 2012 as part of a broader Conservative government overhaul of Canada’s refugee system.

It only applies to those refugees being sponsored by groups of five or more Canadians, called G5s. It does not apply to so-called sponsorship agreement holders, which are large organizations like churches and community associations that have a long history of privately sponsoring refugees.

Briefing notes obtained by the Citizen say the change was intended to protect against fraud, but also to deal with a backlog of applications from private sponsors while speeding up applications. “It is anticipated that this regulatory change will reduce G5 submissions by 70 per cent,” reads one memo to Kenney.

Refugee groups are now hoping the Kurdi tragedy, and resulting groundswell of interest in sponsoring Syrian refugees, will prompt the government to waive the rule.

“There are so many Syrian Canadians and non-Syrian Canadians who are interested in coming together and helping,” Vancouver immigration lawyer Fadi Yachoua said. “But this regulation is making it very difficult for people to even begin the process.”

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickPrime Minister takes part in an economic question and answer session at Mansion House in London, England on Wednesday Sept. 3, 2014.

Overwhelmed by the flood of Syrians fleeing their country since 2011, the UNHCR has only been able to go through the intensive screening process needed to designate someone a refugee for a fraction of the population.

“There is no way the UNHCR can actually have individual interviews with everybody they register to determine whether they are a Geneva Convention refugee,” said Naomi Alboim of Lifeline Syria, a Toronto-based organization working to facilitate private sponsorships. “It’s beyond their resources.”

The Turkish government, which has taken responsibility for registering and designating refugees flowing into the country, faces similar challenges.

The Conservative government has promised that Canada will accept 11,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017. Of that total, more than 7,000 are expected to come through private sponsorship, with the remainder being sponsored by the government.

Yet refugee groups say only sponsorship agreement holders have had any real success bringing Syrians to Canada. They say the majority of G5 sponsors, such as Tima Kurdi, have been stonewalled.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander all but confirmed that the government rejected Kurdi’s application because of the rule. “It was returned to the applicant with a request for additional documentation, in this case, a confirmation of a refugee convention status as determined by the UN High Commission for Refugees,” Alexander said.

His office did not respond to interview requests Friday.

Syrian Canadian Council spokesman Faisal Alazem described the requirement as a “barrier” for private sponsorship “since only a very small portion of refugees have been recognized by the UNHCR.”

The minister does have the ability to waive the requirement for groups of applicants. Alboim said Lifeline Syria sent Alexander two letters asking him to make an exception for Syrians. Other groups say they have done the same.

“He’s aware. The department’s aware. We have received no formal replies from the minister,” Alboim said.

About Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News