Private sponsorship groups in the Lower Mainland are calling on the federal government to do more to ensure Syrian refugees get to Canada, saying they feel shortchanged by a process that matched them to refugee families and then appeared to grind to a halt.
"We were told that our families would arrive, at the latest, by December or January – and we still don't know what's happening," said David Berson, co-chair of the Or Shalom Syrian Refugee Initiative.
Mr. Berson and representatives from other sponsorship groups spoke Friday at a news conference held to highlight concerns over processing times.
Or Shalom and a dozen other Lower Mainland churches, synagogues and community groups have applied to privately sponsor refugees from Syria and submitted their paperwork before March 31. The federal government has said it would do its best to ensure applications submitted before that date were processed by the end of 2016 or early 2017.
Despite that reassurance, the groups are worried that processing could stretch into late 2017 or beyond. The applications involve about 100 people – all of whom have family members or friends already living in the Lower Mainland – in refugee camps in northern Iraq.
"Some of the Syrian refugees are wondering if Canada is going to make good on its commitment to resettle them," NDP MP and immigration critic Jenny Kwan said at the news conference.
"This is not a message we want to be sending to the international community."
The government could do more to ensure privately sponsored refugee applications are processed in a timely fashion, Ms. Kwan said, including seeking assistance in conducting interviews from other agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ms. Kwan said.
In a recent e-mail to The Globe and Mail, an Immigration Department spokeswoman said, "the commitment to process privately sponsored Syrian refugee applications submitted up to March 31, 2016 has always been by the end of 2016 or early 2017.
"This deadline has not moved and we are on track."
As of Nov. 20, 84 per cent of privately sponsored applications submitted by March 31, 2016 were in process, which means that they "were under review or had been finalized," the spokeswoman said.
An Immigration Department spokeswoman also said "operational planning is under way for a follow-up trip into northern Iraq, during which we hope to schedule these [privately sponsored refugee] cases."
Sponsor groups that have been in communication with people in refugee camps say those people have not been interviewed and are struggling with health and safety concerns.
Private sponsors agree to support refugees for 12 months after they arrive, which typically involves helping families with food, housing and other support, including medical and dental care.