Coming to Canada: Immigration staff shortage, red tape bog down refugee claims

As a growing number of Canadians step up to sponsor Syrian refugees and provinces and churches pledge to do more, a bureaucratic bottleneck is slowing the complex work of bringing displaced migrants to .

The onerous refugee admission process — which requires United Nations approval and visa officers on the ground conducting hour-long interviews with migrants — takes, on average, a year. That’s half the time it took five years ago, but it’s molasses slow in a crisis, according to those calling for more political will and swift action to cut the red tape.

While the federal government holds the line on its previous promise of 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next three years, provincial, religious and community leaders continued to apply political pressure this week — calling for regulations to be waived and planes to airlift refugees to Canada, where the necessary interviews can occur.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark pledged $1 million Tuesday to help Syrian refugees settling in her province — home to Tima Kurdi, who tried to help bring her brother and his family to Canada before the image of her nephew, Alan, lying dead on a Turkish beach shocked a nation. Clark’s pledge comes as Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil said the province would triple the number of Syrian refugees it accepts in 2015, bringing the number to 3,650, and fast-track sponsorship applications, even sending its own officials to speed the process.

The Catholic church also ramped up its efforts to aid Syrian refugees this week, responding to an urgent world-wide plea from Pope Francis. The Archdiocese of Toronto Tuesday pledged to raise $3 million to help settle 100 refugee families in the Toronto area — their financial target based on the $30,000 on average the government requires per family for resettlement. Its Office for Refugees director is travelling to the Middle East next month to help refugees fill out 60-page English documents to apply for status in Canada.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl DyckTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl DyckBritish Columbia Premier Christy Clark announces a $1-million fund to help Syrian refugees settle in the province during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday September 8, 2015.

“To have refugees whose first language is probably not English and they have totally different logic and mentality than a CIC officer, it’s a great help,” said Dr. Martin Mark. “It helps expedite the process, and we file it and at the same time look for sponsors to match.”

To explain the slow response, critics point to 2012’s Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act. It restricts private sponsorship ‘groups of five’ to  bringing in refugees who are officially recognized by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

But the UN’s on-the-ground capacity is limited, said Ratna Omidvar, executive director of Ryerson University’s Global Diversity Exchange and chairperson of Lifeline Syria, an effort to bring 1,000 refugees to the Toronto area.

“There aren’t enough refugee files to go around because the government is thin on the ground,” she said. “So we can have a lifeline of private sponsors stretching from Union Station (in Toronto) to Lake Simcoe, but if there isn’t a file of refugee cases the government of Canada is working on it’s the sound of one hand clapping.”

Canada typically brings refugees from their home country, Omidvar added. But the unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving on European soil, she said, demands relaxed restrictions.

“Right now, if they’re in Europe, under our regulations, their lives are technically not in danger because they are in a so-called ‘safe place’.” Canada can “relieve the pressure” by going to Budapest and Athens, she said, and as an exception to rules, such as the Dublin Agreement, which mandates refugees stay in the first ‘safe’ nation they land.

“I’m trying to suggest to Canadians ‘We have done this before, we can do it again,’” she said, pointing to refugee crises in , Ismailis in Uganda, the Indo-Chinese and Kosovo. “In every case, we have dealt with exceptional circumstances with exceptional measures.”

As of Aug. 24, Canada has re-settled 2,374 Syrian refugees, Citizenship and Immigration Canada figures show. That includes over 800 privately sponsored refugees.

“All resettlement cases must be carefully screened to ensure that there are no issues related to security, criminality or health. CIC works with its security partners such as the Canada Border Services Agency to complete this work as quickly as possible,” the ministry said in an emailed statement.

“All Syrian resettlement applications and sponsorships are being processed on a priority basis.”

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