Sponsors who responded to the government's call to help Syrians are now being told waiting times for the arrival of the refugees they sponsored will be months longer than they expected.
As the government returns to a normal processing pace after hitting its goal of resettling 25,000 Syrians by the end of February, private sponsorship groups are frustrated by the increasing waiting times for resettling the newcomers. During the height of the government's efforts to resettle 25,000 Syrians, all Syrian refugee applications were given priority and arrived within a few months of their application being received. Now, sponsors are being told they may not meet the refugees they sponsored until 2017.
Temporary processing centres established in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to handle the 25,000 Syrian refugees are now closed and regional missions are in charge of processing, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
Peter Goodspeed, a board member at Lifeline Syria, said the government's move to include Syrians in the annual caps on the number of private sponsorship applications it accepts in 2016 is slowing down processing times. Lifeline Syria is pushing the government to exclude Syrian refugees from the caps and continue to expeditiously process privately sponsored Syrian refugee applications.
"Allow Canadians themselves to decide how many they want to sponsor and help in this current crisis," Mr. Goodspeed said in an e-mail. "That way we have the flexibility to respond to an urgent situation, which frankly we ignored for far too long under the previous government, while not jeopardizing attempts to clear the past backlog of long outstanding private sponsorships."
According to the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association, there are 10,500 spots for privately sponsored refugee applications in Canada this year; it's not clear how many of those are for Syrians. The government itself has committed to sponsoring an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. The Liberals set aside $245-million in this week's federal budget for their resettlement over the next five years.
The Syrian crisis marked five years of bloodshed and displacement this month. The conflict has forced 4.8 million people to flee as refugees to neighbouring countries and hundreds of thousands to Europe, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Mr. Goodspeed says that the caps combined with the government's return to its regular processing rate will eventually lead to long waiting times for Syrians.
"If you simply lump all sponsorship applications into the same pot, with the same staff, everything will slow down and we'll be back to two- or three-year wait times in no time," Mr. Goodspeed said. "That could easily kill the private sponsorship program in the eyes of the public."
The IRCC recognized some sponsors' disappointment that the expedited process is not continuing, but said the "accelerated pace of recent months could not be sustained indefinitely." The department also confirmed that Syrian applications will no longer be prioritized, meaning the refugees won't arrive as soon as some sponsors expected.
"Private sponsorship applications that are submitted now are not expected to arrive this year as current application inventory already exceeds the high target that has been set," said the department in a statement.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the matter on Thursday, but refused to get into details. Immigration Minister John McCallum said that while processing in the region is not operating at the level it was during the "big surge," he is working to ensure things move as quickly as possible.
"I am working very hard to ensure that those who wish to sponsor refugees will be able to do so as quickly as possible," he said.
Frustration has reached such a level in Toronto that former mayor John Sewell is holding a meeting with sponsorship agreement holders next week to determine how to deal with the government on the delays. Mr. Sewell was part of a group that recently privately sponsored a Syrian refugee family of five to come to Canada and has remained well connected with the sponsorship community since.
"There are at least 250 groups in Toronto that haven't got families," Mr. Sewell said. "They [the government] shouldn't be dashing the hopes of all these groups that have gotten together."
Scott McLeod of the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association said some sponsors are disappointed, but added that it's important to put the complaints into context.
"Some of the frustrations specifically around delays and processing are coming from people who are less experienced in private sponsorship, because it's entirely normal for a case to take 18 months to two years," Mr. McLeod said.
For instance, waiting times for privately sponsored refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey average eight to nine months, compared with 75 months in Kenya, according to the IRCC's website.
Martin Mark, director of the Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto(ORAT), is also understanding of the delays. While his team hopes to help privately sponsor Syrians, it is also eager to see Canada welcome refugees from other countries, including Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan.
As a result of some sponsors' disappointment, Lifeline Syria is recommending the government develop a communication strategy to announce changes to the Syrian refugee resettlement program so that sponsors are thanked and encouraged to continue their work.