Meet the Alsowwans — they want to find safety in Revelstoke

By David F. Rooney

Four months after the community’s first refugee family decided not to come, Revelstoke for Refugees has picked another Syrian family seeking refuge in Canada.

Meet the Alsowwans. They are a family of four currently in the Mafraq Refugee Camp in Jordan.

The father’s name is Farhan. He is a 44-year-old with 18 years experience as a baker. His wife Amal is 40. They have two sons Hamza, 15, and Mohammad, 13. Besides his baking skills, Farhan has sales experience an 10 years experience as a truck driver. Amal can do beaded embroidery and have both said they are willing to do anything.

“The mom also said she loves children and would be happy to work in a preschool —of which there are lots of opportunities for jobs for that here,” said Revelstoke for Refugees co-Chairwoman Rana Nelson.

We do know a bit of their story.

“Our first house was bombed from tanks in Homs, then we fled to Mheen in the countryside of Homs, after a short time the house was bombed in mortars, then we fled to Nebk in the country side of Damascus and we found a house there, and we stayed for about two months till the regime aircrafts bombed the house when we luckily outside,” Farhan said in an official profile acquired from Revelstoke for Refugees. “Because of that we decided to go to Jordan, so we took a small bus from there and we went to Naseeb border town, but on the way, and we were still in the country side of Damascus, some armed men stopped the bus and they detained us for three days for no reason, and they released us afterwards. Then we headed to Naseeb to cross the Jordanian border.”

Now they just want to leave the Mafraq camp. However, there are still months to go before they’ll board a plane for Canada.

“We are still waiting for Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada approval that the family has been cleared to come to Canada,” Rana said in an interview. “When/if that’s approved, we’re still looking at a year.”

There is currently a massive backlog of 45,000 applications from privately sponsored refugees, which the Canada4Refugees organization is pressing Ottawa to clear up by June 2018.

You can read their brief on the situation below:

Clearing the Refugee Backlog by June 30, 2018

This brief requests that the federal government devote sufficient resources to clear the backlog of as many as 45,000 Privately Sponsored refugees (PSR) by no later than June 30, 2018. We also call on the government to establish sufficient, multi-year PSR targets to ensure that future applications in this stream are processed within a more reasonable timeframe. And these initiatives should not be at the expense of, or take priority over, the IRCC’s efforts to meet its commitments to UNHCR (Units Nations High Commission on Refugees) approved refugees.

Currently, there is a backlog of applications representing as many as 45,000 PSR persons sitting with the IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada). (The minister has stated in a recent Toronto speech that the backlog involves about that number: we wish there was more transparency from IRCC on figures in general.) Although the government has announced its intention to clear this backlog by the end of 2019, given current PSR targets of 16,000 per year and new PSR applications being submitted daily, it appears unlikely that this goal will be achieved on time. Instead a new backlog will result from not processing new applications during this time.

The current backlog of Privately Sponsored Refugee applications involves applicants from a variety of conflict areas around the world. In the past, the strategy to apply caps to overseas visa offices has proved ineffective in reducing the backlog. SAH allocation caps have similarly not worked. The current backlog has arisen primarily due to 3 reasons:

  1. The government pushed aside non-Syrian refugee applications underway in 2015, 2014, and even earlier, so it could focus its resources on the Syrian initiative in late 2015 and early 2016.
  2. Private citizen groups responded to the Liberal government’s call to help sponsor and settle Syrians and these efforts were supported by the government’s relaxation of the associated documentary requirements (e.g.: UNHCR certificate) which allowed for a greater number of applications.
  3. An increased demand from those recently resettled for assistance in reuniting family members separated due to the Syrian and other international conflicts.

The negative consequences of this backlog are substantial and pernicious and call into question the government’s efforts to position Canada as a global leader in the humanitarian treatment of refugees as well as a leader in newcomer integration. For example:

A large number of applications in the backlog have been ‘in-process’ for more than 3 years and any newly submitted applications will be similarly delayed if the IRCC’s plan continues to be primarily focused on clearing this backlog over the next 3 years. Since a majority of these applications are for women and children who are living in dangerous and economically precarious circumstances, the undue delays in processing their applications puts them at significant risk and is contrary to humanitarian and judicial principles of timely review.

The impact of this delay on the individual applicants is enormous. Some fear so much for their lives that rather than waiting, they accept offers for smugglers, sometimes ending in tragedy. Some suffer dire health issues as they wait. Some take offers from countries which can accept them immediately and the Canadian investment in processing the application is lost. A slower resolution of the backlog issue also impacts the IRCC’s ability to focus sufficient resources on processing UNHCR recommended refugees, whether GARs or sponsored BVORs, even though these refugees are most in need and at risk.

Clearing the backlog more quickly will allow for the reuniting of family members separated due to the Syrian and other conflicts. Family reunification, studies show, plays an important part in ensuring the successful resettlement of recently arrived refugees.

Approximately 10,000 sponsorship groups, comprised of 80,000 or more private volunteers, are ready to pay for, and help assist in resettling the refugees associated with the backlog applications.   Multi-year processing delays puts undue strain on sponsorship groups and ultimately will discourage citizen participation, risking the long-term viability of what is widely considered one of the most successful grassroots refugee programs in existence. It is a program that the government itself is promoting globally as an important model for successful integration.

We recognize that some of the backlog is related to PSR applications originating in Quebec, and that the government will need to work with Quebec officials to help resolve it. In determining whether an expedited backlog clearance initiative is viable and realistic, the following factors were considered:

Limited additional IRCC staffing required

It is our contention that an expedited schedule could be largely undertaken within existing IRCC resources for the following reasons:

Re-engineered processes and lessons learned following 2015/2016 Syrian blitz: Both the current Minister of Immigration Minister Hussen and the previous Minister John MacCallum, have spoken about how the IRCC has learned from the 2015/2016 Syrian initiative to develop more efficient processes which have enabled their refugee department to handle higher volumes with existing resources. These new processes should be used for backlogged refugees. The backlog applications have already undergone initial reviews and processing with the remaining workload largely to be undertaken by overseas visa offices. As these applications come from a wide range of geographic areas the workload would be spread out amongst many Canadian visa offices where processing capacity already exists or can easily be added to from the local pool. This is unlike the Syrian initiative where significant numbers of people had to be flown into a few, newly established centres in countries neighboring Syria.

However, there may be a need for some resources in the Middle East, given that perhaps twenty percent of the backlogged refugees are located there. PSR applications are recognized as being significantly easier to process than GAR applications. Much of the required information is provided in the application itself, relatives in Canada are often available to assist in the application review and the SAH provides an additional level of review and comfort.

Limited additional financial cost associated with expediting the arrival of the backlog applications

Given that it is the intention of the government to process all the backlog applications in three years, completing the process eighteen months earlier would only mean shifting some of the expense – estimated to be at least several hundred million dollars – from 2019 to June 2018.   Furthermore, as the cost of processing and settling a PSR refugee is estimated by the Minister to be approximately half the cost of a GAR refugee, expediting this group would be a cost-effective way to enhance our refugee targets.

Possible strain on the resources of local settlement agencies

These PSR applications are backed by private sponsorship groups who will handle much of the resettlement tasks. A meaningful portion of these applications are also supported by close family members of the refugee, thereby providing further emotional and logistical support for the applicant once they arrive into Canada. Finally, these applications have been submitted by SAH’s (Sponsorship Agreement Holders) from across the country so that the settlement agency resources in any one location will not be overly strained.

The strong support of faith communities with which many sponsorship groups are working is important to the success of their endeavour.

Historical Precedents

Canada has a history of successfully managing large one-off refugee resettlements. In 1956/57, Canada settled 40,000 Hungarian refugees at a time when our country was half the population. In 1978-80 approximately 62,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled with 34,000 coming through the PSR stream itself. The special “Backlog Clearance Program” that was launched in 1989 led to 59,000 PSRs arriving in a 3-year period with 35,000 arriving in 1991 alone.

Global Context

The current refugee crisis has been described by the UNHCR as the worst since World War II, and there does not appear to be any mitigation in sight. At the same time, several countries which have traditionally assisted in refugee resettlement are closing their doors to new settlements. Not only does the current environment call out for greater Canadian support, it also provides another opportunity for Canada to show global leadership and reinforce our renewed brand as a humanitarian leader. Committing to processing the backlog within a year will substantially enhance Canada’s reputation with other countries and will allow Canada to consider increasing the number of UNHCR recommended refugees.

Canada’s 150th birthday

What could be more appropriate to celebrate Canada’s 150 birthday than to commit to bring more refugees to safety in Canada?

Domestic political considerations

Canada may be unique in the world in that ambitious refugee initiatives, particularly those involving privately sponsored refugees, have the support of all political parties at the federal and provincial level. Furthermore, based on recent surveys, a clear majority of the Canadian public also support the PSR model and initiatives.

Conclusion

The existence of the 45,000 backlogged refugees and the associated multi-year delays in processing for existing and new applications leaves the most vulnerable in high-risk and untenable circumstances. Citizen participation, and thus the long-term viability of the PSR program, is also jeopardized due to the unnecessarily protracted lead-times from application to arrival.   The Canadian government’s current target of clearing the backlog by the end of 2019 represents an overly cautious and drawn out approach to a very serious and urgent need.

We call on the government to clear the existing PSR backlog by June 30, 2018 and to establish multi-year PSR targets that take into account greater public interest in supporting this refugee model. In our view, a more aggressive timeline in addressing the backlog is viable, equitable, financially feasible and justifiable given existing global conditions and the current government’s claim to humanitarian principles and refugee issues.

This brief was prepared by a wide group of people meeting over the last few months, including the following:
Dr. Martin Mark, Office for Refugees of the Archdiocese of Toronto ORAT
Luciano Moro, ORAT
Andrew FitzGerald, Canada4Refugees
John Sewell, Canada4Refugees

To indicate your support, please email [email protected] (mailto:[email protected])

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