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Kathleen Wynne calls for sponsors to take on government-assisted refugees

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, centre, speaks with newly arrived Syrian refugees in Toronto on Dec. 18, 2015.


Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is pushing the federal government to match private groups wanting to sponsor Syrian refugees with government-assisted refugees who are stuck in hotels because of housing shortages, in an effort to reduce a logjam that has seen several cities temporarily halt accepting new refugees.

"We have advocated for making a connection with families that are already prepared to receive Syrian refugees," she told reporters on Tuesday. "They are ready and willing, and there are government refugees who are here."

Immigration Minister John McCallum said Tuesday that Ms. Wynne's suggestion makes sense, and it's something his department is "actively looking at." However, his officials and refugee resettlement experts dismissed her plan as too disruptive and not effective.

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Ms. Wynne's comments were prompted by concerns that many government-assisted refugees (GARs) are being accommodated in Greater Toronto Area hotels – about 950, according to media reports – as government officials work to find housing for them.

Meanwhile, there are private sponsors who are anxious to receive and aid refugees but have not been matched with a family. Private sponsors must provide housing for a year for those they have agreed to take.

"My hope would be that soon we will be able to see those connections being made," Ms. Wynne said. "There are people sitting in hotels who don't have access to housing and don't have that support."

The federal Liberal government promised to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February – 10,000 privately sponsored and 15,000 assisted by the government. Ottawa pledged to bring in another 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

According to the government, 13,764 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada. Last week, refugee settlement officials in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver asked the federal government to stop sending Syrian refugees to them as they tried to secure housing.

Despite Ms. Wynne's entreaties, immigration officials say sending government-assisted refugees to private sponsors creates problems and stress on an already overloaded system.

"While we understand that the proposed solution makes sense in some ways, it has logistical challenges and may be more disruptive to all in the end," Camielle Edwards, spokeswoman for Mr. McCallum, wrote in an e-mail.

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"The minister is always open to hearing ideas that could help the GARs and understands why this particular option would make sense to the private sponsors. We have been looking at it, among many other options."

She said local service-provider organizations are checking in with the refugees at hotels and ensuring they have access to essential services and social support. They are also looking for permanent housing for them.

Ms. Edwards said she is not exactly sure what is happening in the cities that asked for more time to deal with the refugees, adding that they are still coming into Canada.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a national non-profit umbrella organization, doesn't believe it's legally possible to simply have government-assisted refugees taken over by private sponsorship groups.

Even if changes were made to allow the change in status, Ms. Dench said she doesn't believe it's worth the effort. She said it's simply a "glitch" in the process that there is a temporary delay in accepting some refugees.

In addition, she said, there are concerns that fewer Syrian refugees would come to Canada if private sponsors took over those who are already here under government auspices.

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Lifeline Syria's Ratna Omidvar agrees and is concerned politicians are not giving enough thought to the consequences of private sponsors taking on government-assisted refugees.

"On the face of it, it sounds like a simple, attractive idea, but when you dig deeper, a couple of serious issues emerge … If private sponsors walk over the road, so to speak, to government-assisted refugees, what happens to the families they are sponsoring to bring to Canada?" she said.

The principle behind private sponsorships is to add to the number of government-assisted refugees.

"We can't do one thing and take away from the other," she said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Dench said there are also concerns with the speed at which private sponsorship groups have come together. "So many private sponsorship groups are just emerging out of nowhere and there's not really a structure in place to really support all of those groups," she said.

She said some media commentators are "overdramatizing" the problem and some cities need a bit more time to organize permanent housing for refugees.

"You are trying to ramp up processes way beyond what we have been doing in the past," she said. "People are going to the maximum."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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