by Judy Trinh in Ottawa
Now that Canada has settled 25,000 government sponsored Syrian refugees, the Immigration Minister says he will use the lessons learned in the process to improve the immigration system for all groups.
“We inherited a department full of problems and we want to transform it into a department that’s speedy and welcoming to newcomers,” said John McCallum in an interview with New Canadian Media.
One of the biggest lessons learned involves engaging the private sector. From the beginning the government pitched the settlement of Syrian refugees as a “national project.” The minister openly encouraged business leaders to donate money, and to date, McCallum says Canada’s companies, communities and NGOs have raised more than $30 million to help settle Syrians.
Helping with rents
Those private sector funds played a pivotal role in solving the problem of finding affordable housing for the Syrian newcomers. Although many government refugees were housed in hotels for weeks and even months, McCallum says 93 per cent have now found permanent homes despite expensive rents in some cities.
The federal government provides a refugee family of five, less than $800/month for rent, a daunting budget to work with especially in Toronto and Vancouver where average rents for a two-bedroom apartment top $1,300/month. McCallum says the government didn’t want to increase the housing allowance, instead settlement agencies were able to access corporate grants to subsidize rents for newcomers.
But successful engagement has also resulted in frustrated expectations – it’s a double-edged sword McCallum doesn’t mind wielding.
“We have a problem that no other immigration minister has; I cannot produce these refugees quickly enough to meet all the demands of generous Canadians who want to accommodate them.”
Staffing in Jordan and Lebanon
Since the story of Alan Kurdi, the little boy washed ashore made headlines, thousands of Canadians coast to coast have formed sponsorship groups to take in refugees. But visa officers were pulled back after the government reached its settlement targets at the end of February and caps were imposed on private sponsorship such as Group of Five applications. The public outcry was immediate and McCallum has since announced that additional staff will return to Jordan and Lebanon to help interview Syrians.
Although exact numbers haven’t yet been determined, McCallum says the staff will consist of a mix of new hires and retired visa officers. The government is committing to processing applications accepted before March 31. The government’s goal is to have 10,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugees set foot on Canadian soil by early next year.
Addressing the backlog
But while Syria applications are being fast-tracked there is concern among other refugee groups that they are being forgotten. The Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada website indicates that government refugee claims out of Jordan can be processed in one month, while an application from Nepal takes 17 months. Processing an application from Eritrea is estimated to take an incredible 85 months. It’s a huge discrepancy McCallum says he’s trying to fix.
“Certainly, there are long delays for many classes of immigrants and other newcomers. It’s not necessarily because of the Syrian experience.” McCallum says over the past decade, processing times have gotten worse as staff have been cut, while red tape has grown.
In the next few weeks McCallum will be announcing measures to ease the backlog. The measures involve streamlining family reunification applications for spouses, parents, grandparents and caregivers. McCallum says he’s also hopeful more money will be found to hire more immigration officers across the board.
He’s adamant that resources were not diverted from other regions to deal with Syrian refugees and he stands by Canada’s commitment.
“I don’t make any apologies for making Syrian refugees a priority. This is a global crisis, the worst the world has seen in decade. Millions are displaced because of war ... it’s right that Canada step up to the plate.”
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