Canada’s Syrian resettlement efforts: A flash in the pan?

Canada’s resettlement program brought in 60,000 Syrians over the past four years. Should it be seen as a success?

By: /
18 April, 2019
Syrian refugees hold Canadian flags as they take part in a welcome service at the St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church in Toronto, December 11, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Gareth Chantler
By: Gareth Chantler
Freelance writer based in Gaziantep, Turkey

Yassin must have expected positive news. Because when it arrived, he merely said “good” and minded his tea.

After a 16-month wait, a judicial review had “set aside,” or revoked, a Canadian visa officer’s decision to find him inadmissible to Canada.

His steady voice gave way to excitement in the hours that followed. A breathless message left for Tarek, a translator from Aleppo, and a late night call to Abdo, his friend at the local job centre, evidenced a hope reanimated. A hope that Yassin, his wife Nour and their young son Ahmad, after four years in Turkey, having escaped a madness beggaring description in Syria, might actually board a plane to Toronto, where the congregants of Beaches Presbyterian await.

Yassin’s case, as reported in OpenCanada last May, is only one among scores of cases of Syrian refugees overseas, first selected to be resettled to Canada, then refused on spurious grounds. Stories like his are heard less frequently than the stories of those who make it to Canada. Meanwhile, those who arrived have become the face of the Trudeau government’s lauded resettlement program, a campaign promise kept, to which the Liberals may point as the October federal election nears.

After Yassin was first refused, the organization responsible for his family’s sponsorship, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, had to wait nearly a year for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to release his family’s file, something essential to making an appeal. (Strangely, key forms in the file had never been filled out in the first place.) An application for judicial review was then readied and submitted. Finally, a review was granted on consent shortly thereafter, meaning the government did not defend its visa officer’s rationale for the refusal.

“A positive judicial review means that there was a very serious problem with the decision,” explains lawyer Pierre-André Theriault. In Theriault’s interpretation of Yassin’s particular case, “the errors were flagrant.”

Like Yassin, Khaldoon Sinjab is also now one interview away from coming to Canada. On February 10, 2016, he and his wife were apparently told “Welcome to Canada” by a visa officer at the Beirut embassy. Yet subsequently, he (and by extension his family) was ruled inadmissible on highly dubious grounds. A laborious judicial review overturned that decision in January.

“Visa officers are aware that the likelihood of privately sponsored refugee cases being judicially reviewed is very small,” says Theriault.

In other words, the anonymous visa officers in both cases may have anticipated their decisions would likely never come under scrutiny.

Refusals like Khaldoon’s and Yassin’s, even if overturned, consume time and money that could have helped additional refugees come to Canada. Waiting for years can also sour sponsors on further participation, not because their core values change, but because they often lose faith in the government as an administrator.

Too often these kinds of details are lost on the public, who may not understand the variety of ways refugees arrive to Canada, where numbers touted by the federal government come from, or how resettlement programs work.

In Canada, two distinct programs are responsible for the majority of overseas refugee resettlements, Syrian or otherwise.

“Independence would ensure Canadians are privately funding resettlements on top of those undertaken by the government.”

The first is the Government Assisted Refugee (GAR) program. Refugees, usually selected by the Canadian government’s partners in the field (UNHCR, for example), are resettled entirely by government agencies and those it contracts. The Canadian government sets a limit (or target) for GARs every year. Historically, this target is some function of international obligations and commitments. With the singular exception of 2016, the Trudeau government’s GAR targets have been comparable to those of its predecessor.

The second program enables Canadians to resettle Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs). PSRs are named by Canadians who then formally undertake the costs and responsibilities of their first year (or years) in Canada.

Understandably, Canada’s private sponsorship community is motivated by hopes that, through its efforts, more refugees come at the end of the day. But experts warn that for every PSR arrival, the Canadian government becomes demotivated to resettle a potential GAR in turn.

In her 2016 study, Private Sponsorship: Complementary or Conflicting Interests?, Shauna Labman of the University of Manitoba wrote that the relationship between those Canadians sponsor and those brought in by the federal government “can too easily devolve into a relationship of over reliance and dependence.”

Sponsors would prefer that the PSR and GAR programs remain independent from one another. Independence would ensure Canadians are privately funding resettlements on top of those undertaken by the government. Scholars like Labman refer to this as “the principle of additionality” and point out that it was a founding principle of Canada’s private sponsorship program.

But Labman and others also point to a history of conflation. The Canadian government has been tempted to take credit for the successes of private resettlement efforts in order to mitigate the visibility of its own program’s shortcomings. Thus, Labman warns, “after almost 40 years of negotiating their role, sponsors still must reassert additionality.”

Trudeau refugees
Syrian refugees are presented with a child’s winter jacket by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on their arrival from Beirut at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, December 11, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

“Many countries,” IRCC Minister Ahmed Hussen recently said at the University of Windsor, “have quietly been learning now from Canada — even though the program is 40 years old.”

But veterans of Canadian resettlement efforts, both in government and in sponsorship, would prefer current leadership learn from Canada’s past better practices and previous successes.

On a February 2018 panel entitled Refugee Resettlement in Canada: Moving Forward from Lessons of the Past, Mike Molloy, former coordinator of the Canadian Indochinese Refugee Resettlement Program, described Canada’s effort to resettle 60,000 refugees in the early 80s. Two dozen visa officers, Molloy said, “had 70 camps to cover in eight countries and they were told, ‘We’re sending you 181 charter flights, we expect 60,000 refugees, go get them.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”

The complexity of that resettlement plan matched the complexity of its task. But from great success grew unwieldy bureaucracy.

Given the “growth of the capacity of the Canadian state,” wrote Concordia’s Mireille Paquet in reviewing a book Molloy co-authored, Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975-1980, “the story told…makes the 2015 resettlement targets less impressive, to say the least.”

“On Syria the interesting thing is, we’re not seeing a full switch onto how we approach refugees or how we approach resettlement,” Labman added on the same panel. “We’ve seen a focus on Syria. So the government had a hashtag, #WelcomeRefugees, that [recognized] only the Syrian arrivals.”

What columnist Terry Glavin called “the posture striking” of “the parties’ ever-shifting refugee resettlement promises” a month before the 2015 federal election may have struck such a chord that it informed the Liberals’ modus operandi once in government. Public relations piggybacking, whether on the White Helmets’ brand, or that of Peace by Chocolate, has become a Liberal calling card.

The Syrian resettlement program enjoyed six months’ priority status and will be claimed as a success of the Trudeau administration’s first term. But many are asking whether paying six months’ attention to an ongoing eight-year crisis is commendable.

In his 2014 book Points of Entry: How Canada’s Immigration Officers Decide Who Gets in, McMaster University’s Vic Satzewich quotes a visa officer who describes Canada’s network of overseas processing offices as not especially flexible: “People say, ‘If we are backlogged in a certain office, just put more people there.’ It’s not that simple. There are a finite number of visa officers. We can’t operate that quickly… we can use secondments to backfill, or …can have new officers, but that takes time.”

But once elected, the Liberals wasted no such time.

“Syrians are being processed so quickly to some extent at the expense of other groups,” renowned immigration and refugee lawyer Jacqueline Swaisland said in an interview in 2016.

Indeed, then-Immigration Minister John McCallum announced on November 24, 2015 that about 500 Canadian immigration officials were being sent to Amman, Beirut and Ankara.

But come March 2016, “the Government announced that it had released all re-assigned and temporary staff processing Syrian refugees…as well as staff in the Winnipeg processing centre,” wrote Jona Zyfi for the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, “and closed processing centres in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.”

“However, the biggest administrative challenge,” noted Zyfi, “resulted from the Government’s surprise announcement that it would be capping sponsoring applications for Syrian refugees. Private sponsors were given little more than 24 hours notice that applications had to be received before midnight March 31 in order to be finalized by the end of 2016 or early 2017.”

Flighty reallocations of (non-fungible) human resources indicate disregard for sustainable capacity building. Instead, to meet a campaign promise, Liberal policy was to plug staff into a far-flung context and play the hero. It is not difficult to connect that rashness with how roughly so many Syrian files — Syrian lives — have been handled. It also suggests politicians on the campaign trail, outside government at the time, had unrealistic expectations of what they could demand of the Canadian foreign and civil services. Now reversion to the targets and processing times of the Harper era indicate the government’s willingness to process applications has fizzled, but this says nothing of Canadians’ enduring desire to sponsor.

“Syrians are being processed so quickly to some extent at the expense of other groups.”

“Lebanon has gone into a deep freeze,” complains prolific Toronto sponsor Stephen Watt. “The wait time listed on the website for PSRs is 22 months, but I’ve heard it’s actually 35 months. And that is borne out by three applications I’m waiting to go through.” Similarly, in that hurried first quarter of 2016, processing times for Syrians in Turkey was fewer than three months, but today IRCC lists the average wait time as 26 months.

One might ask, if hard-working Canadians want to privately resettle refugees, often their own family members, and they have the means to do so, why would the government impose any limit at all?

Limits are in fact a new invention, appearing since 2011. They create a shortage in supply that cannot meet Canadian demand for sponsorship. From the government’s perspective, however, unbridling the limit on applications would lengthen its unsightly processing backlog, something associated in the media with neglect.

Prior to the imposition of limits, according to Ottawa-based advocacy group Refugee 613, the government “did not dedicate enough resources to process the volume of applications submitted.” Devoting more resources to processing or simplifying the bureaucracy, or both, could address the backlog. But the Trudeau administration currently favours neither, preferring to limit PSR applications, to the protestations of the sponsorship community.

“Removing the limits introduced only recently would facilitate significantly higher numbers of PSRs given the clear interest, if not demand, of civil society. In light of these obligations, it should be noted that Canadian civil society has reacted with consternation in face of the state’s anemic targets for 2017 (7,500 GARs, 16,000 PSRs, and 1,500 BVORs),” wrote York University’s Jennifer Hyndman, William Payne and Shauna Jimenez in a critical policy brief submitted to the government of Canada in early 2017.

Syrians in Jordan
A family of Syrian refugees are being interviewed by authorities in hope of being approved for passage to Canada at a refugee processing centre in Amman, Jordan, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Paul Chiasson/Pool

Last November, Hussen announced annual GAR targets for the next three years — 7,500, 8,500 and 10,000. The GAR targets during the last five years of Conservative government ranged between 7,500 and 7,100 (they averaged about 7,000 throughout the Harper era). Those are the total numbers for all GAR refugees resettled to Canada, not only Syrians.

“Unfortunately,” immigration lawyer Steven Meurrens wrote prophetically in Policy Options in September 2015, “it is not difficult to envision that after the election there will be a return to the status quo, and possibly even the slow claw back of these additional resources.”

One policy solution, which was in place until 2002, would be to allow Canadians to sponsor their relatives. Refugees often have family in desperate straits. Their priority therefore is often, once settled in Canada, to become sponsors themselves.

“It was called the assisted relative class,” explained Tom Denton of Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, during the 2018 Refugee Resettlement in Canada panel. “Even the current minister of immigration [Hussen] didn’t know it existed [during a recent consultation]. If we had that today, it would take pretty well all the pressure off the limited private sponsorship program.”

“Among the refugee-sponsoring community,” Denton had written in 2004 for the Journal of International Migration & Integration, “the demand for family-linked sponsorships is seen as being effectively without limit, because for every refugee who arrives, sponsors estimate that at least two more sponsorship requests are generated.”

This is sometimes referred to as the “echo effect.” Because the assisted relative class is long gone, and parental and grandparental sponsorship is limited (and regrettably administered), private sponsorship remains the only hope for many. And as those Syrians resettled in 2016 become Canadian citizens, demand for private sponsorship will echo once again. But only a tiny percentage of that demand will be addressed if application intake remains constrained by the government and processing times continue to swell.

“Sponsors have been confronted with administrative and regulatory changes that challenge them to do more with less,” Labman wrote of the private sponsorship program’s history. They then “fear that overall Canadian resettlement will reduce if their efforts are not expanded.”

In total, about 60,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada since the last federal election. Around 20,000 arrived in the first quarter of 2016 alone (coincidental with the flash staffing injection detailed above), part of a 2016 total of more than 42,000.

Arrivals in 2017 and 2018 combined were therefore fewer than those in the first three months in 2016.

Four million Syrians still sleep in Turkey, a million survive in Lebanon. Many remain trapped inside Syria, whether in Idlib, or Rukban camp on Jordan’s border. Only a small percentage of people from these populations will ever find a durable solution. And Syria will not be the final refugee crisis. It makes little sense to treat the Syrian resettlement program as a fait accompli when there are lessons to learn, known better practices, and people like Yassin holding on in limbo.

“Yes,” he answers immediately, when asked if he still wants to come to Canada, “and my wife is so excited.”

Both are taking English classes over the instant messaging application WhatsApp courtesy of Amal Learning. They cannot help but imagine their indefatigable son bouncing off the walls at a school in Toronto. In the meantime, Yassin keeps in touch with nine Syrian families he met around the time of his first interview in December 2015.

“Eight are in Canada,” he says. “Only me and another are still waiting.”

Those eight, from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, all rave about Canada. They love the nature, the schools, the law and order. Winter is crazy, they explain.

That other family — GARs without Canadian sponsors to worry after them — travelled to Ankara in late 2018 to complete standard medical checks.

But in February, the father received a cryptic message. His medical check and each of his seven children’s were received. But his wife’s never made it to the Canadian embassy, even though the two buildings are walking distance apart. Since one medical check was not received, though it was completed, the resettlement of the entire family is on hold. Their limbo in Turkey, and absence from Canada, persists on the strength of a clerical error.

“A change in government may have reset government-sponsor relations,” warns Labman, “but highlights the vulnerability and interpretive malleability of the program.” Too much, in her view, “depends on the predilections of the government in power.”

“The government made this commitment and was able to do it,” National Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee Brian Dyck lamented one year ago. “The problem is that they sort of said, ‘Well okay, now we’ve done it and we can move on.’”

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