Canadians have turned a blind eye to the Liberals’ refugee failures

Canada’s big talk on refugees doesn’t align with the government’s private-sponsorship cap—which was swept under the rug

A Canadian Border Services agent walks past a welcoming sign at Gate 521 at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

A Canadian Border Services agent walks past a welcoming sign at Gate 521 at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cause the “influx” of refugees currently finding its way into Canada at unofficial border crossings from the U.S. with his “Canadians will welcome you” tweets? Unlikely. Will Canada become overrun with refugee claimants as a result of his statement following President Donald Trump’s first executive order and the legally required loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA)? Probably not, and even if it is, there is a refugee determination system—albeit an overburdened and imperfect one—which will decide whether or not they can stay. But the influx has become the focus of our collective attention because, finally faced with pressures at our own borders similar to the ones Western Europe has seen for the last 18 months, it is suddenly not so clear that Canada’s welcoming nation reputation is earned. And Trudeau is stuck between a rock and a hard place: wanting to appear as a leader of the progressive world with expansive statements of inclusiveness, and desperately trying not to jeopardize Canada’s important relationship with the United States—all while navigating potentially shifting domestic public opinion on immigration.

But even if there are tricky waters ahead on the STCA for Trudeau and his government, there are other ways for Canada to flex its progressive, pro-refugee muscles that don’t require going head-to-head with Mr. Trump on his anti-immigration policies. Crossing the border and making a claim is only one way that refugees get to Canada; the other is to be resettled from abroad, with legal status already determined. Resettlement benefits a very small number of the world’s refugees, but it remains an important solution to forced displacement for some of the most vulnerable. Canada punches above its weight internationally on resettlement: historically, we accept approximately 15 per cent of the refugees resettled globally in a given year. And of course, we got some serious international progressive credibility last year for resettling more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, both by government and through private sponsorship.

Yet while we were all sleeping in January—that is, watching round-the-clock analysis of Trump’s immigration ban—Canada’s federal government quietly shut the door on the primary route to resettlement in Canada for refugees from Syria and Iraq—two of the countries on Trump’s planned banned list. A resettlement stream for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, which was to remain open until at least late this year, was capped at 1,000 refugee spaces with only one month’s warning—a number that was reached on Jan. 25. It gets worse: the stream that was shut down was for private sponsorship, meaning private sponsors, not the government, pay the resettlement costs for the first year.

Perhaps most critically, many of these sponsorships now made impossible were for the left-behind, often vulnerable, family members of the Syrian refugees that the government quickly selected in early 2016 in order to meet campaign promises. The cap means those family members—and the sponsor groups who were in the middle of fundraising and completing complex application forms to bring them here—were suddenly out of luck with the one resettlement stream available to them having been closed. Canada’s resettlement of government-assisted Syrian refugees focused primarily on younger, nuclear families; denying these resettled families their own family members and social infrastructure can only make integration into Canadian society harder. As of now, there is no promise that this program will ever be reopened.

Ostensibly, the reason for the Canadian cap was to help reduce the backlog in applications for private sponsorship. This is admittedly a real issue, as the government has consistently broken every promise it has made in the last year regarding processing times for Syrian private sponsorship applications, and delays for applications from other countries are often far worse. But that problem is government-created, since it is they who decide resourcing levels for the offices processing applications.

When more clarity on the cap of 1,000 sponsored Syrian and Iraqi refugees started to spread in late January, there were rumbles of dissent, and rallies in a couple of cities. But then other refugees started showing up at Canada’s borders unannounced, and everyone’s attention turned there. The news cycle, our collective Canadian attention span, and, perhaps, our delight in claiming moral superiority over our U.S. neighbours, meant that the mismanagement of our private refugee sponsorship program was allowed entirely to fall off our radar. Our Canadian government has not been called to account for their failure to follow through on their resettlement commitments. A real opportunity to lead is being lost. With Trump attempting to close America’s doors, the impact of Canada’s cuts is all the greater.

A group of 24 Windsor Law students and faculty recently delivered an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, with the signatures of nearly 700 academics, students, refugee settlement workers, sponsor group members, advocates and concerned members of the community. The letter contains four calls to action:

1. Significantly increase overall the number of resettlement spaces available in Canada for 2017 and beyond;
2. Clear the backlog of (Syrian and other) private sponsorship applications;
3. Lift the private sponsorship cap for Syrian and Iraqi refugees;
4. Facilitate family reunification more effectively for Syrian and other refugees in Canada, through private sponsorship and/or a streamlined extended family reunification category.

The time to act is now. By responding to the letter’s four calls to action, the Canadian government can dramatically improve the global resettlement program at a critical time. It can send a clear, substantive message to President Trump and the rest of the world that Canada continues to be an open and welcoming country for refugees, and it can ensure that Canada’s legacy as a trailblazer in the realm of private refugee sponsorship is intact. Lastly, it can follow through on its commitment to the more than 40,000 Syrian refugees it has already resettled to Canada, to their vulnerable family members left behind in ever more precarious situations, and to the Canadians who hope to assist them. This will be the most welcoming message yet.

Anneke Smit is an associate professor of law at the University of Windsor and a member of the national steering committee of Canada4Refugees. She has also run a pro bono program matching lawyers and law students with private refugee sponsorship groups.

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