Debbie Douglas is executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. Janet Dench is the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Some newly arrived Syrian refugees are in need of support to get settled in Canada; some motivated Canadian citizens are waiting impatiently for Syrians to sponsor … isn't the logical solution to match the two together, converting the already arrived government-assisted refugees into privately sponsored refugees?
No. This would be a bad solution for refugees in the longer term. The government has a responsibility on behalf of all Canadians to resettle refugees. Canadians should expect the government to live up to its commitments toward government-assisted refugees – and if and when it falls short, we should hold the government to its responsibilities, not say "this looks too hard for you – we'll take over." Our government must uphold our international humanitarian obligations with respect to refugee asylum and resettlement. Transferring these responsibilities to civil society is a slippery slope and one that has implications for all refugees needing Canada's protection now and in the future.
It is true that there have been some hiccups in the reception of some of the government-assisted refugees, but they have been over-dramatized in some media coverage and are being quickly addressed by the responsible organizations.
It is not surprising that there are some challenges, given the rapid increase in numbers of arrivals. The government is bringing refugees to Canada on an urgent basis, which is the right thing to do because the situation for Syrian refugees is dire. It is important to bear in mind that the scale of arrivals in Canada is small compared with many European countries, let alone Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. This is not to diminish the extraordinary nature of the Canadian effort, especially the response of civil society.
Private sponsors have an important role to play in welcoming refugees: Their role is to complement government resettlement, not substitute for it. Through private sponsorship, Canadians are able to add to the number of refugees offered protection and a new home.
We are fortunate to be in a situation in Canada where so many citizens want to sponsor refugees. This current reality is almost beyond the most optimistic dreams of refugee advocates just six months ago. It is important that this energy be harnessed, to provide solutions for as many refugees as possible and to reinvigorate a private sponsorship program that has been in decline recently, weighed down by barriers and delays.
The sudden emergence of so many would-be sponsors has also created challenges, as the structures are not in place to orient and support them, nor are there adequate mechanisms ready to connect them with refugees in need of sponsorship. Experienced private sponsors, settlement agencies, members of the Syrian Canadian community and government officials have been working day and night for months now to respond to these new sponsors. The Syrian Family Links initiative, announced last week by the federal government, fills a gap by connecting sponsors with Syrian refugees who have family in Canada. It should be noted, however, that this role is already being played effectively by settlement agencies and private sponsorship groups in many regions of the country. The private sponsorship route is well-adapted to supporting people in Canada trying to reunite with their families overseas caught in dire situations and in need of protection.
If sponsors take over responsibility for government- sponsored refugees already here, that may very well result in the abandonment of refugees with family in Canada.
We must also remember that there are other refugee populations whose needs for protection are just as great. They should not be forgotten in the focus on the Syrian refugee crisis.