More than 100 British Columbia lawyers have volunteered to help members of the public navigate the refugee sponsorship process, a complex system in which minor errors can derail an application.
The lawyers have signed up for the pro-bono work through the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program, a University of Ottawa venture that aims to connect those who want to sponsor refugees with legal experts.
Julia Herzog, an immigration lawyer who is the program's point person in Victoria, said its operation just launched. Ms. Herzog, who is the grandchild and great-grandchild of Eastern European Jewish refugees, said lawyers in her city are considering a workshop to get the word out. Members of the public would be able to drop in with their questions and applications.
"A lot of times, the private sponsorship applications get rejected if the forms aren't exact, so we can help with that. Lawyers are basically trained to be very exacting with language, even those of us who aren't immigration lawyers," Ms. Herzog said in an interview.
Emily Bates, co-founder of the national program and director of the University of Ottawa's refugee hub, said about 1,000 lawyers have signed up across the country, including 75 in Vancouver. About 45 people have volunteered in Victoria, Ms. Bates said, though that figure does include some law students.
The program has been established in five cities – Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto are the others – and plans are in the works to launch in four more, including Edmonton.
The program's website – refugeessp.ca – says more than half of all private sponsorship applications are denied and that clerical errors are a top reason for their refusal.
"We knew the [sponsorship] process was really cumbersome. There was a high rejection rate, often due to errors in filling out the forms," Ms. Bates said in an interview. "We work with lawyers all the time and we recognized that they could lend their legal skills to help navigate that process and turn the energy that Canadians were bringing into real change."
She said a number of factors make the process difficult, and lawyers will primarily assist with getting application packages ready.
"For people who are privately sponsoring refugees, they have to create a settlement plan, they have to prove that they'll be able to support the refugee – which sometimes includes establishing a trust fund and definitely includes proving your income with T4s or other official forms," Ms. Bates said.
Jean McRae, executive director of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, which has about a dozen refugee sponsorship applications in the works, agreed that the process can be a difficult one to manoeuvre.
"It's very bureaucratic. Things need to be very accurate. You have to have the right documentation, it has to be appropriately translated, where that's necessary," she said in an interview.
"As an agreement holder, we're familiar with what information needs to go where. It can be a little complex. If anything is incomplete, the files will be turned back to try again. It is quite complicated."
The federal government has vowed to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February.
The B.C. government has said it expects more than 200 privately sponsored refugees to arrive in the province by the end of December. It has said it does not know how many privately sponsored refugees will arrive between January and the end of February.
It is also unclear how many government-assisted refugees British Columbia will receive. The provincial government has told Ottawa it's willing to take up to 3,500.