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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Syrian refugees at Toronto Pearson International Airport, Dec. 11, 2015. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Syrian refugees at Toronto Pearson International Airport, Dec. 11, 2015. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Sewell and Smit

Canadians are poised to take in more Syrians. Let’s do it Add to ...

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto. Anneke Smit is a professor of law at University of Windsor. Both are members of the steering committee of Canada4Refugees, which represents sponsorship groups.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits New York this week to meet with UN officials and U.S. President Barack Obama, he will undoubtedly – and rightfully – bask in praise for bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by last February.

Sadly, our government has done little since then to ensure that a sizeable number of refugees continues to arrive in Canada.

In early March, processing staff in the Middle East and in Winnipeg were scaled back, reducing to a trickle the number of refugees coming to this country even though thousands of Canadians had formed citizen sponsor groups and were ready and willing to support them. As well, deadline and program changes were made with little transparency or notice to sponsors.

When Mr. Trudeau said last fall that his government was willing to act, the Canadian public quickly stepped forward. Many thousands formed local sponsorship groups promising to support at least one refugee family for a year. But when the end of February came and the government had met its target of 25,000 Syrians, it quickly cut off the special processing of refugees in the Middle East. Sponsorship groups then learned they would not be receiving a refugee family until late 2016, or 2017, or beyond.

In not following through, the government squandered an opportunity to nurture a robust, permanent, citizen-sponsorship community that could make Canada a global leader in refugee assistance. But Mr. Trudeau can now get it right.

The idea of linking private citizens with refugees is a uniquely Canadian approach. It began in 1979 as a citizen response to the so-called boat people crisis, when 60,000 refugees fleeing Vietnam were settled in Canada within a two-year period. It’s a terrific model to ensure that a family can rely on a group of local Canadians to help them get established in their new community.

As we know from the Vietnamese experience, sponsors and refugees often form personal bonds that continue for many years. Research has shown that citizen-sponsored refugees tend to settle more quickly than other refugees, and that they make a positive impact on the economy.

The government has not been clear about the numbers, but we estimate that across the country, Canadians formed at least 7,500 sponsor groups, each with from five to 20 members, most affiliated with the government-approved Sponsorship Agreement Holders, through which the government allocates refugee families.

The groups raised the necessary money – a minimum of $40,000 in large cities; smaller amounts in less-expensive towns and villages – to cover housing, food and living costs for the first year for a refugee family. Group members took training courses to learn about Syrian culture, how to help settle the new families and register the kids in school, where to find English as a second language classes for the parents. They collected furniture, clothes, toys, phones and computers. Some groups expected their families would arrive within a month or two and rented apartments – units that now sit empty, money out the door.

We believe thousands of sponsorship groups have raised the needed money to support a family for a year and are still waiting for a family. These groups have collected about $25-million that is now frozen in charitable accounts, since it can only be used for the family they have yet to welcome.

This is a missed opportunity to parlay widespread citizen support into a permanent response not just to Syrian refugees, but to the many refugees from other countries as well. Our government needs to step up to help Canadians help refugees.

Mr. Trudeau should tell the United Nations and President Obama that he knows many thousands of Canadians have formed sponsor groups and want to support more Syrian refugees, and that his government will put the resources needed into processing the applications quickly so that another 25,000 Syrians can come to Canada, into the welcoming arms of citizen sponsor groups, by the end of 2016.

That would indeed be good news, and could set an example for other countries.

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