This is the second part of a talk I gave on Ascension Day 2017 at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, on Canada and the Refugee Crisis. The first part was where I give an overview of the history and current situation in the world today; this part zooms in on Canada’s response to refugees in the past couple of generations. I was the Refugee Coordinator for the Refugee Program of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia from February 2015 until April 2017.
Canada’s Refugee Policy Evolves
Up until the mid-1970s the immigration policy of Canada was based on quotas for countries of origin, and many of those quotas were racially and religiously based. In 1975 the Trudeau government introduced legislation that came into force in 1976, the Immigration Act. It abolished the quotas and created four categories of immigrants:
1.Independent immigrants were selected on the basis of the points system;
2.The Family class which included the immediate family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents;
3.Refugees as defined by the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; and
4.Persecuted and displaced persons that did not qualify as refugees under the convention definition but could be admitted on humanitarian grounds.
This was the first formal recognition of refugees as a class of immigrants – before then they had been admitted on an ad hoc basis, and frequently with a calculation as to how well they would integrate into Canadian society and contribute to the economy. Refugees and persecuted & displaced persons would now be admitted on humanitarian grounds. At first the assumption was that these persons would be supported by the government as Government Assisted Refugees (“GARs”). However, in the late ‘seventies large numbers of refugees from South Vietnam were seeking permanent solutions in Western nations. The Canadian government was overwhelmed by the need to rapidly settle so many people, and so allowed for private Canadians in groups and for community organizations (often churches and other religious bodies) to sponsor refugees, providing virtually all the financial resources necessary for a year for an individual or family. Ultimately some 110,000 Vietnamese came to Canada between 1975 and 1985.
A major influence on this decision by the Clark government and carried on by the Trudeau government was the circulation in draft and the publication of the book None is Too Many.
This book, by Irving Abella and Harold Troper, detailed the problematic history of Canadian governments with regard to the immigration of Jews into Canada. Politicians and immigration officials became aware of the true history and swore that it would not happen again. The welcoming of refugees would be based on humanitarian grounds, not political expediency or economic advantage.
The program for Private Sponsorship of Refugees (“PSRs”) is so far unique to Canada. Most other countries continue mainly along the GAR route. While this is often subcontracted to settlement houses and religious organizations, Canada remains alone in allowing its citizens and residents to sponsor individuals and families. Sponsorship may be done by any group of five citizens or permanent residents, or by any community group, but they must apply and be accepted by the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship of Canada (“IRCC”). While this happens, most PSRs are now admitted through groups that have made permanent arrangements with IRCC to sponsor refugees. These are called Sponsorship Agreement Holders (“SAHs”, pronounced “sawz”), and the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia is one of them. There are over 100 SAHs across the country.
Another aspect of Canadian policy is that we admit people as refugees who have not necessarily been assessed as such by the UNHCR or their host nation (i.e. at best, they are registered asylum seekers). The IRCC and its officials make their own determination. This is the category of persecuted and displaced persons who do not qualify as refugees but
+ are outside their home country, or the country where they normally live, and
+ have been seriously affected by civil war or armed conflict, or
+ have been denied basic human rights on an ongoing basis.
On that basis any person fleeing the war in Syria and makes it to another country qualifies prima facie.
Originally government policy observed the Principle of Additionality, which asserted that the Canadian government would determine how many GARs it would support, and that PSRs were to be in addition to this number. Historically this turned out to be roughly 1:1. However, as time went on and successive governments reduced funding to IRCC’s predecessor ministries, a backlog of applications began to build up. The Harper government began including the PSRs in its calculations of total refugees to be admitted, and started putting caps on the numbers of refugees each SAH could sponsor (the only notable exception being that there was no cap on the number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees a SAH could sponsor). In particular, applications that would be processed by certain visa offices in high-risk areas – Cairo, Islamabad, and Nairobi, for example – were also “sub-capped”. SAHs complained about the restrictions, but worked within them.
Suddenly It All Changed
On September 2, 2015 there were over 4,000,000 refugees from the Syrian war. Not a few had relatives overseas, and one family, that of Abdullah Kurdi, submitted an application to the Canadian government for sponsorship by a group organized by Kurdi’s sister in Vancouver. For mainly bureaucratic reasons the application was rejected by IRCC’s predecessor ministry, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (“CIC”). After the rejection Kurdi decided to try to migrate to Europe and paid human smugglers to be taken from Turkey to Greece. However, they never made it – the boat capsized, and Kurd’s wife and two sons both died. The dead body of three-year old Alan Kurdi was photographed on a Turkish beach just before a police officer removed it.
The photograph was widely published in various media that day and went around the world in social media. In particular, because of the Canadian connection and the rejection of the application the then federal government and its minister, the Honourable Chris Alexander, questions were asked as to whether Canada could do better. As Canada was in the midst of a federal election, it became an issue, and indeed, it dominated the news media for a solid week, which is an eternity in politics. New Democrat leader Tom Mulcair said that he would bring an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada if elected. Prime Minister Harper defended the refugee process and the numbers being admitted, grudgingly suggesting that he could also bring 10,000 Syrians if re-elected. Eventual election winner Justin Trudeau promised 25,000 by Christmas (later revised to the end of February) and, on this issue, effectively ran to the left of the NDP.
Meanwhile rallies were held and people came together to form groups to sponsor refugees. I stood up at one rally in Victoria and announced that if anyone wanted to learn how to sponsor refugees they could come to my parish church on Tuesday, September 8. 350 people showed up at St. Matthias (I will never see that church so full!). I invited Sabine Lehr of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (the city’s oldest and largest immigration settlement agency), to help out, as they had just become a SAH also. Over 250 people volunteered to come together in groups. ICA and the Refugee Program of the Diocese of BC split the list of volunteers, and each of us then proceeded to form sponsorship groups to raise money, prepare and submit applications, and get trained to welcome refugees.
Let us fast forward to the end of 2016. As we know, the Canadian government flooded the Middle East with visa officers and arranged charters to bring Syrian refugees to Canada. After twelve months over 47,000 refugees had come to Canada, at least 25,000 of whom were GARs. There was a spill over effect as many groups agreed to sponsor non-Syrian immigrants. According to the UNHCR, the top five countries of origin in 2016 were:
To put this in context, there were 320,000 total immigrants in 12 months 2015-2016, of which 14.6% were refugees. This was three to four times as many refugees as would normally have come in a twelve month period.
The new Trudeau government did a remarkable thing in bringing in so many refugees so quickly. In particular, it looks far better than the United States, which took in only 10,000 Syrians. However, this needs to be put in perspective. At the same time that Canada took in 47,000 refugees (and processed a further 23,895 inland refugee claimants), Germany welcomed and processed over one million refugees. If Canada had processed a similar proportion it would have taken in 490,000, seven times the number that it actually did. As well, as the chart above shows, the Trudeau government has reverted to older levels of support for GARs. They also placed caps on the number on refugees any SAH could sponsor, arguing that they needed to further reduce the backlog of applications in the visa offices. The financial taps were turned off abruptly after the 25,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada, and the 500 semi-retired visa officers sent out in November 2015 were brought home. They also removed the exception for Syrians and Iraqis, including them under the caps for the first time, something not even Harper had done. Thus, arguably, right now the refugee process in Canada is even more restrictive than it was under Harper.
There is a distinction between overseas refugees and inland refugee claimants. Overseas refugees are not allowed to board a plane to Canada unless they have a visa. Because we are surrounded by oceans on three sides patrolled by the Coast Guard, and have a stable neighbour to the south, we do not get massive numbers of people migrating by land and water, as European countries do. Nevertheless, we do get a number of people entering Canada on visitor visas or student visas and then claiming refugee status. Under Canadian law the responsibility of the federal government is to hear the claim and to adjudicate it – and these are the Immigration & Refugee Boards that you sometimes hear about. The Board’s decisions can be appealed and they are also reviewable by the courts. As you can see from the numbers above from Statistics Canada, there was a rise in 2016, but nothing out of the ordinary compared to previous years. There will be more in 2017 because of migration by people from the United States over the undefended border as they live in fear of the new US federal government. IRCC will hear their claims and put the claimants through the same security and medical checks as overseas refugees, as well as use the same criteria to determine if they are legitimate refugees; roughly one in three is rejected and deported.
Diocese of BC Refugee Program
The Anglican Diocese of British Columbia has over 45 churches and a variety of non-parochial ministries all over Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. We have been a SAH since the late ‘seventies and have helped settle hundreds of people over the decades. We typically work through parishes, building up sponsorship groups to sponsor individuals and families.
In early September 2015 we were not actively sponsoring anybody, although we had submitted several applications and were waiting. Since then we have, in total, settled or applied for 350 individuals through 75 sponsorship groups and well over 500 volunteers. We have raised over $2 million dollars. We will work with anybody, not just Anglicans, and so many of our groups are Roman Catholic, some are from other Protestant churches, many are basically groups of secular people who just want to work with us, and we even have a group through the Islamic Centre of Nanaimo. Without intending to, we have become the biggest outreach of the Anglican Diocese of BC.
- As of March 2017 we had completed the sponsorship of 58 people, representing six families in Victoria, five in Nanaimo, two in Ladysmith, and one in Comox.
- We are actively settling 75 people, fourteen families in Victoria and five north of the Malahat. This includes 42 Syrians, 9 Colombians, 8 from Myanmar, 4 Liberians, 2 Iraqis, 1 Ethiopian, and 1 Gambian.
- We have submitted applications for 145 more refugees, and they are being processed by IRCC. This represents 52 families or individuals, of whom 60 are Syrian, 45 Iraqi, 29 Eritrean, and the rest are from the Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and one stateless. 31 of these families will be settled in Victoria, and 21 in the middle part of Vancouver Island.
- IRCC has allocated 83 spots for individual refugees for us to sponsor. All of these will be used, and we are currently preparing 18 applications for 72 persons, mostly Syrians.
- We have a waiting list of over 115 people who have asked us for sponsorship. We may get further spots allocated to us later in the year.
When I became the Refugee Coordinator in February 2015 I could never have imagined that the program would grow this large. This was supposed to be my contribution to the Diocese, as part of my work in the parish, perhaps five to eight hours a week, done in addition to my regular work. As the program grew it became apparent that it needed to move from being an amateurish organization (in the best sense of that word) to one with professional support. In October 2015 the Diocese hired Tony Davis to assist with sponsorship groups north of the Malahat and Rebecca Siebert to do the same in Victoria and the Gulf Islands, as well as assist me in the general oversight of the Refugee Program. Although I put in many hours in the Fall of 2015 and the first half of 2016, it gradually became clear to me that it was time to hand over the leadership in refugee program coordination to Rebecca; I resigned my role in April of this year.
I behooves me to state that while I had a role in all of this, I simply was the Refugee Coordinator at a time when tens of thousands of Canadians suddenly wanted the skills, knowledge, and training that the Refugee Program could provide them; we were in the right place at the right time. While I was fairly aggressive in taking advantage of the situation – one that comes only once in a generation – the hard work was really done by Rebecca and Tony, as well as Professor John McLaren as the Chair of the Refugee Committee. The Refugee Committee transformed itself from a listening group for the Refugee Coordinator into a working group where everybody had a responsibility and the whole established policies. Things changed every other week, it seemed, and the work of training and designing the training was massive. Our over-five hundred volunteers were the ones who really worked hard, selflessly giving hundreds of hours of volunteer time to help raise money and then help to settle the newcomers. Sometimes this was far more challenging than anyone had anticipated. Kudos to everyone in the program! As well, we had help from the politicians at the federal, provincial, and municipal level, and people working in various ministries and non-governmental agencies. ICA led the way in best practices for settling refugees as they received hundreds of GARs in addition to some 75 PSRs. The Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (“VIRCS”) complemented the work of ICA and helped many of our sponsees in Victoria, as did the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society in Nanaimo and the Cowichan Valley Intercultural & Immigrant Aid Society. God bless you all!
Being part of the Refugee Program has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I’ve had people – and not just refugees – come up to me and say, “You’ve changed my life!” I believe that as a Christian I and all who follow Jesus are called to work with others in being hospitable and caring, and that being so is indeed life-changing. I am grateful for the two-and-a-half years I had working in this ministry, and I pray that it may continue. When things are not going well I can always tell myself, “Well Bruce, there are over 350 people who will not be washed up dead on a foreign shore, and you had a hand in it.” My hope is that you might be inspired to sponsor refugees, if you are not already doing so, and help change people’s lives.