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opinion

Canada expects to welcome 144,000 refugees from 2023 through 2025 – and well more than half of them will be sponsored by individuals and organizations that will take responsibility for supporting those newcomers for a year.

It is a uniquely Canadian program that allows private citizens and community groups to sponsor refugees. But the volunteer initiative, which has been in place for more than 40 years, is hindered by red tape at a time when Canada is ramping up its ambition to resettle those displaced by conflict.

The sponsors’ commitment is big: The minimum annual financial cost to sponsor a family of four, according to Ottawa, is $28,700. Sponsors provide income and settlement support to refugee families for the sponsorship period, which is typically 12 months. That includes startup costs such as furniture and clothing, and then ongoing monthly costs for basic necessities, such as housing, food and public transportation, as well as social and emotional support.

The private sponsorship program was created in response to the 1978 boat-people crisis, when the government invited Canadian citizens to help resettle 60,000 Vietnamese refugees in communities across the country. That collective effort established Canada as a global humanitarian leader.

After the initial surge, the program continued in small numbers – until 2015, when the image of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey galvanized Canadians to mobilize again.

The need has only increased since. Around the globe there is unprecedented upheaval, a humanitarian crisis on multiple fronts, with record numbers of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and Myanmar to name just a few. Canada has set a target to step up and help, continuing a proud tradition.

The federal government has complicated the process for sponsors, however, while failing to effectively tackle processing times. These issues should be addressed as the program expands.

Ottawa has spent the last several years boosting oversight of the private sponsorship program, in order to prevent fraud and confirm that the needed supports are delivered. But the new program integrity and assurance process comes with a folder full of requirements that impose a highly bureaucratic framework on a largely volunteer-driven effort. One of the objectives, outlined in a 2021 internal audit by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, is to improve “horizontal collaboration and coordination of strategic priorities.” Whatever that means.

And, critically, Canada needs to tackle application wait times that are unconscionably long – a process that begins with transparency. Applicants – and their Canadian sponsors – can expect to wait anywhere between two and five years to be processed. That leaves refugees in desperate circumstances, while their sponsors are left sitting on funds and, sometimes, empty rental housing. Expect delays, the government says, but it can’t or won’t say how long the waits will be.

The program began as a way to share the financial burden of accepting refugees. Today, there is another self-evident advantage to spreading out resettlement. Government-assisted refugees are adding more demand for housing in major urban centres, but private sponsors come from every corner of the country, reducing competition in the tightest markets.

Finally, the supports that private sponsors provide help make resettlement a success. The Environics Institute studied a cohort of almost 40,000 Syrians who arrived as refugees in Canada in 2015-16. Their findings, published last December, concluded that, as a whole, they had successfully resettled in Canada within just a few years of arriving in the country. For those sponsored privately, most deemed the support they received as essential to their resettlement, and the relationship with sponsors proved enduring, with three-quarters of this group remaining in touch with their sponsors several years later.

Canada has a gem of a program that brings out the best in communities. Private sponsorship of refugees is a huge undertaking, in financial and logistics and social support, and it is amazing that so many Canadians put up their hands to do this. These efforts should be facilitated, not smothered in bureaucracy.

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