Skip to main content
opinion

Peter Goodspeed is a retired journalist and board member of Lifeline Syria

Last week the eyes of the world were on Canada as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum led a Canadian delegation to a special international conference on the Syrian refugee crisis in Geneva.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is desperate to have countries urgently resettle 480,000 Syrian refugees and he wanted to showcase Canada's 37-year-old private refugee sponsorship program as a possible solution to the world crisis. He invited Mr. McCallum to lead a panel discussion on the Canadian response to the Syrian crisis, highlighting the role of private refugee sponsors.

Just days earlier, during a visit to Canada, Mr. Grandi told a Parliament Hill news conference he wants to build an international refugee resettlement program "on the model of what is done here, especially Canada's private sponsorships."

"It adds more places for resettlement, but it also contributes to create this sense in civil society that it is a positive thing to do," he said.

It's ironic that the day Mr. McCallum was accepting well-deserved world praise for Canada's remarkable achievement of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees in just four months, hundreds of anxious and concerned private refugee sponsors in Toronto were claiming their government is actually letting them down.

Rallying in an old church, they insisted Canada is turning its back on private sponsors by prolonging the processing of Syrian sponsorship applications and abandoning the priority it had given Syrian refugee cases.

Once the government met its election promise to resettle 25,000 refugees, it quietly closed processing centres in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan that it had opened to handle the Syrian refugees and it stopped the charter flights. Then it warned private sponsors that if they hadn't submitted applications by Feb. 29, they will not be receiving refugees before early 2017.

The sudden change of gears distressed people who had spent six months rallying their friends and neighbours to raise money, collect furniture and to prepare to resettle vulnerable Syrians.

A last-minute decision, announced on March 30, to extend the previously unannounced deadline for accepting refugee applications to midnight March 31 did little to ease their anxiety.

Our government showed commendable leadership in honouring its election promise by rapidly processing the resettlement of thousands of government-assisted refugees. But thousands of Canadians who had also scrambled to help by organizing private sponsorships felt abandoned.

They insist our job is not finished.

It is now the government's turn to support private refugee sponsors in meeting their promises to neighbours, friends and to the Syrian refugees themselves that we will resettle them in Canada as soon as possible.

Failing to do so could jeopardize the future of private refugee sponsorship in Canada, just as the rest of the world is being encouraged to follow our example.

It's important to note that the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Canada has become a national project of which we should all be proud. The number of private sponsors willing to sacrifice their time and money is an excellent gauge of public support. And the number of Canadians stepping up to help is awe-inspiring.

Their efforts should be nurtured, not discouraged.

Given the same sort of effort we put into the Syrian crisis in the last few months, Canadians themselves can set new international standards for compassion and concern.