Like a Northern Ontario lake in January, the cracks are starting to show in the Syrian refugee housing strategy.
It was to be expected, given the federal government’s desire to act swiftly, but there are lessons to be learned.
Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto have run out of housing, temporarily, for Government Assisted Refugees (GARs). Immigrant serving agencies in these three cities have asked the government to stop sending families until they can clear the housing backlog.
Meanwhile, sponsorship groups in cities across the nation have homes ready to go and no refugee families in sight.
Refugees arrivals lag in smaller cities
In a previous commentary I took Chris Friesen, Director of Settlement Services with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., to task for saying small cities can’t handle refugees. His view is it should be left to the big boys: Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa.
Well, as everyone knows, those cities are congested and housing is way too expensive.
So why is the federal government not redirecting refugee families to where homes are ready to go and sponsorship groups are eager to help?
The government should be quickly readjusting the numbers in the three refugee programs: GARs, private sponsorships and blended sponsorships.
Sponsorship groups in cities across the nation have homes ready to go and no refugee families in sight.
The blended program has hit some snags. Our group in North Bay Ontario has been ready to go since November and the first family we were matched with through the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario, a mother and nine children, has yet to arrive.
We don’t know why and no one will say. We have signed on for a second family, but there’s still no trace of the first one.
The same is true for other sponsorship groups. Former Toronto Mayor John Sewell was quoted in the Toronto media as saying the sponsorship group he chairs has been ready to go since mid-December but has not received an offer of a refugee family to sponsor.
He said his group is one of 18 affiliated with Rosedale United Church and none are receiving referrals.
Issues with the selection process
The problem is the federal government chooses its refugee families first. The remaining qualified families are then put in a pool of profiles that are shared with the 100 faith and community groups that have sponsorship agreements with Ottawa.
The GARs are funded 100 per cent by the taxpayers for the first year while the taxpayers cover only about 40 per cent in the blended program. In the private sponsorship program they cover nothing.
So why not change the selection system to put the private and blended sponsorships at the front of the queue?
We have signed on for a second family, but there’s still no trace of the first one.
“The matching system was designed for small-scale sponsorship interest. To adapt it to the current public interest is a big challenge,” he said.
It doesn’t appear that big to me. The Syrian refugee families don’t care what category they’re in. They just want to leave.
How difficult can it be to redirect enough GARs to where there are willing sponsorship groups?
While the government is at it, why doesn’t it re-examine its GAR system, which settles refugees in a few select cities across Canada, and open it up to many more cities? Spread the work, spread the housing challenges and send refugees to communities seeking to grow their populations.
Canada must capitalize on its capacity
Many military bases are at less than full capacity and could be used to house GARs temporarily in communities until more suitable housing is found. We have one in North Bay and we have a city that has raised a lot of money and is receptive to newcomers. We are but one of many similar communities across Canada.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Minister John McCallum wants to bring in many more refugees. The government’s new emphasis on refugees is evident in the word being placed in his title.
The Syrian refugee families don’t care what category they’re in. They just want to leave.
If we’re in for significantly increased numbers of refugees for the long term, it’s time to make some changes to the programs that were designed for much smaller numbers.
Let’s spread refugees across Canada to the many willing cities and towns. The big cities do not have a monopoly on settlement and integration expertise.
If the federal government spent more resources on immigrant settlement agencies in the smaller centres, a settlement worker here and a settlement worker there, their capacity would increase and they could settle larger numbers of newcomers.
The hiccups in the present system present an opportunity for change.
Don Curry is the president of Curry Consulting, a company providing immigration solutions for rural and northern Canada. He was the founding executive director of the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre and served in that capacity for eight years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.