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Renewal Through Refugees

One important way that refugees can resettle Canada is through private sponsorships. More than 80 groups have agreements with the government of Canada to help arrange these sponsorships. I work with a couple of them, including World Renew. Many sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs) are faith-based groups. Some are affiliated with churches or communities across Canada. Some are large or small local groups within a city or area. Some sponsor refugees from a particular nationality or ethnic group. I will address some of the current challenges that are facing private sponsors today and for the last few years—which I believe will have the end result of shrinking and perhaps finally eliminating the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program that Canada has pointed to with pride among the resettlement nations of the world.

One fairly recent change was taking away Interim Federal Health insurance (IFH) for privately sponsored refugees. In fact, the government first took away the IFH for all resettled refugees but due to public outcry, it was restored for government-assisted refugees and more recently provided only to certain privately sponsored refugees through the new blended visa office referred program. I fought for and agree with those restorations, but the very particular way in which the cuts remain in effect for privately sponsored refugees is a way of saying, “we want to control the way you participate in sponsorship and we are going to hurt you this way.” It might seem to outside observers that this change impacts only a small group of refugees, but that is not true. The cuts, impacted sponsorships that had already been submitted by private sponsors with the understanding that IFH coverage would be available when these sponsored refugees arrive in Canada. We had to explain to churches and other constituent groups that the coverage that they expected for the families they had sponsored would not be given. It has also had an impact on whether groups will sponsor in the future because there is now an inherent risk in doing a sponsorship which could bankrupt a small church. The end result? Shrinking the program.

We are seeing large numbers of arrivals of named privately sponsored refugees this year. These are numbers from the backlog of refugee applications, some sponsored as long ago as 2007 and 2008. We welcome the arrivals and they will swell the PSR numbers for the foreseeable future. However, because we are limited in the number of new applications we may submit—we now must request spaces through a complicated allocation process, and these limited numbers are further capped for several visa posts that have the largest backlogs of applications—it means that we cannot submit many potential sponsorships. I work with churches which may well move on to other ministries. 

There is another discouraging and revealing side story about this. In 2012, the first year that limits were imposed, 1381 “spaces” were divided among all of the SAHs in Canada. There was a hue and cry about the limited number and particularly on the caps to Cairo, Nairobi, Islamabad, etc., where traditionally the largest number of sponsorships has been submitted. Interestingly, though, many of these spaces were not used by sponsors. What does this mean? We complain about the government limits, but what is happening within sponsoring communities? Why aren’t we pushing the limits further? I think one reason is that there is also a change in the spirit of ordinary Canadians, members of churches and mosques, who in the past eagerly sponsored refugees and gave of their time and resources for the cause.

Everything I have said so far points to a dismal future for the private sponsorship program. I am not blaming only the government of Canada for the current situation. I think the people of Canada should be rising up en masse to say, “This is not how we should be responding to people in such urgent need.” We should be protesting more vociferously, not just letting it happen. There appears to be a lack of urgency and commitment to do anything about refugees, either to receive as sponsored refugees or simply to take a stand against injustices here in Canada and globally. This is why I work actively with the Canadian Council for Refugees—it is one place in Canada where there is still passion about the injustices and lack of response to refugees everywhere.

Sometimes in our church circles we say we need a call to “renewal” or “revival”—to turn from our selfish, complacent ways and become obedient once again to God’s calling on our lives. Perhaps this is what we need again in our response to refugees—a renewal of the compassionate, generous, self-sacrificing spirit that showed itself so clearly back in 1979 with the Vietnamese boat people. We need this renewal not only in our faith communities and other sponsoring communities, but also in Canadian civil society as a whole—and along with that, a government that encourages us to expand our generosity, to respond to urgent needs, to stop being self-absorbed, caring only for our own success and survival, but to find out once again how wholly and truly inspiring and satisfying it is to reach outward with compassion. Helping refugees get settled in Canada could well renew our own souls.

[Image: Flickr user jlaceda]

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