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Canada Migrant crisis: a primer for Canadians who want to sponsor refugees

Hundreds of migrants gathered at the port of Lesbos waiting to board a ship that will take them to the port of Piraeus on September 7, 2105.

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

As the plight of those forced to flee the civil war in Syria continues to dominate headlines, many Canadians are clamouring to help.

"People don't know what to do – they are just offering anything and everything," said Naomi Alboim, who is on the steering committee of Lifeline Syria. The Toronto-based group was formed this summer to assist Canadians who want to help Syrians, by offering advice on how to navigate the processes that can resettle entire families of war refugees.

"We haven't brought any Syrians over yet, we are just putting together the applications at this point," Ms. Alboim said.

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"It's going to be months until people start coming unless the government of Canada really starts to step up its game and starts processing applications and getting them on planes to come here."

For those Canadians who do want to sponsor refugees, here is a primer:

How to apply

Applications to sponsor a refugee are accepted from community organizations or from groups of five or more permanent residents. They are also accepted from so-called Sponsorship Agreement Holders, usually churches or charitable groups.

There are about 95 of these in the country and they will handle the extensive paperwork on behalf of private citizens, usually in return for a fee. They may also require proof that the sponsor has the means to support the refugee.

Application forms, which are available at the Citizenship and Immigration website, are vetted at a government facility in Winnipeg, a process that advocates say should be expected to take months.

Once the initial application is approved, the refugee still has to be processed overseas. According to recent figures from Citizenship and Immigration, over the past year this took between 11 months (in Lebanon) and 45 months (in Turkey).

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While you're waiting

Janet Dench, executive director of Canadian Council for Refugees, acknowledged that the extended waits are discouraging for would-be sponsors. "It's really hard [for] sponsorship groups to have any incentive if it's going to take so long," she said Monday.

But the time can be used preparing for the arrival of the refugees, who will need to be clothed and housed when they arrive. Taking classes through the government-funded Refugee Sponsorship Training Program is one way to get a full understanding of the responsibilities being undertaken. Workshops cover topics such as finding suitable accommodation, navigating the health-care system and supporting someone who has experienced trauma or torture.

How a refugee is chosen

There are two ways sponsors select refugees. In one, the sponsor names a specific person (perhaps a relative of someone they know). Or it can be what's called "visa office referred," which involves a sponsor whose application has been green-lit choosing from profiles of refugees approved by Ottawa.

The latter process can be much faster, because they're already approved by the time the sponsor's application goes through. But a problem, Ms. Dench said, is that "often there aren't that many cases" in that pool. Also, few of them right now are Syrian, making them less attractive to sponsors moved to help specifically because of events in that country.

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Once they arrive

Sponsoring refugees is not something to be done lightly. There are substantial responsibilities and the sponsor is liable for their costs. The sponsors are expected to help the refugees find work and housing, as well as settle into the community, begin to pick up the language and learn Canadian customs. Sponsors commit to supporting the refugees for 12 months or until they are on their feet, whichever comes first, and in rare cases may need to support them longer. Although costs can vary dramatically – with something like an unforeseen medical condition causing large medication bills – advocates ballpark the cost of sponsoring a family of four at around $30,000.

To help right now

Numerous international charities are taking donations to directly assist Syria's war refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – which is trying to ensure health care, vaccinations and shelter for 1.8 million Syrians taking refuge outside their country – says that a $20 donation can buy a displaced family some sleeping mats, and that $550 can buy a tent.

Other charities assisting in the region include the Canadian Red Cross, World Vision, Oxfam and War Child. Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is providing humanitarian care along the routes migrants take. And a group called the Migrant Offshore Aid Station is working to try to save migrants in distress in the Mediterranean.

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