CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | MICHAEL SWAN
A Syrian toddler waits in a refugee camp.
TORONTO – Despite committing Canada's churches and volunteers, unasked, to welcoming 1,100 Syrian refugees before the end of this year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada has so far received just 145 applications to sponsor Syrian refugees.
None of them have reached Canadian soil.
The Sponsorship Agreement Holders' Association, consisting mainly of Church-based organizations that have been sponsoring refugees since Canada brought 60,000 Vietnamese boat people into the country in 1980, reports its members were able to submit 62 applications for sponsorship in 2013.
In the first half of 2014, 83 applications have been submitted. The in-Canada processing of applications can take six to eight months. Security checks, medical exams and interviews by Canadian staff in overseas visa posts take two to three years on average.
Of last year's 62 private sponsorship applications for Syrian refugees, the Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto submitted about 40, said ORAT director Martin Mark.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and his communications staff refuse to answer questions about how many Syrian refugees have made it to Canada.
Sponsorship agreement holders have been slow to take up the invitation to sponsor Syrians because the idea was sprung on them as a surprise July 1, 2013, said council member Alexandra Kotyk. Agencies learned from media reports the government was committing them to take in 1,100 Syrian refugees.
"We have never spoken with Chris Alexander on this," Kotyk said. "We speak with people at a different level in government and they are not the people who are able to make the decisions that need to be made."
By making almost its entire Syrian commitment dependent on private sponsorship, CIC set up unrealistic expectations.
"We knew our program wasn't going to be able to help right away," Kotyk said.
The contrast between how Canada approached private sponsorship for Iraqi refugees in 2009 and how it has dealt with Syrian sponsorships over the last year is stark, said ORAT's Mark.
Extensive consultations took place both before and after Canada announced it would bring in 20,000 Iraqis by the end of 2014.
A high-level engagement with Church and community leaders primed the pump for both donations and volunteers to support sponsorship of Iraqis, said Mark.
Not only have sponsoring agencies had less time to ramp up a campaign and organize parishes to prepare for another wave of families from the Middle East, the increased cost and constantly changing CIC rules are making the task harder, said Mark.
The liability commitment for sponsors, cancellation of most health insurance for refugees, and launching and tracking sponsorship applications have all driven up the cost of bringing refugees to Canada.
Sponsorship agreement holders are also leery about how the Syrian program may affect their efforts to sponsor refugees from other parts of the world. Last October Citizenship and Immigration Canada told sponsorship agreement holders they would soon be given their annual quota for 2014 – the number of refugees each holder is allowed to sponsor from each region of the world.
In March the CIC told The Catholic Register it would release those numbers "soon." As of June 20, the 2014 quotas have not been released.The eight-month delay in receiving quota numbers from CIC is playing havoc with sponsorship plans. Agencies such as ORAT with willing sponsors ready cannot submit new applications until they receive their quota.
"It shows disrespect. It also shows, generally, that the government is not fully comprehending its responsibilities and duties," said Mark.
Citizenship and Immigration communications staff refused to answer written questions and did not return phone calls.