September 4, 2015
By Debra Black
If there is political will a country can move mountains in terms of resettling refugees, says Ratna Omidvar, chairperson of Lifeline Syria.
Speaking at a news conference in Toronto, Omidvar has called on Ottawa to act speedily to help Syrian refugees, recounting how in other eras both the Conservative and Liberal governments put regulations aside and did everything in their power to resettle refugees in Canada.
She’s hoping that same humanitarian spirit will rise again and is encouraging Ottawa to make a number of changes and loosen some of the regulations involving resettlement.
“In every major refugee crisis in the last century it was political will that moved the mountains — to bring the Hungarian refugees in 1956, the Czech refugees in the 1960s, the Ismailis in the 1970s, the Indo-Chinese in the 1980s,” says Omidvar. “In each instance it was political leadership that moved the mountains.”
“Today we call on the government of Canada and all our political leaders to go beyond election promises and deliver.”
She’s not alone in suggesting political will could dramatically change the outcome of the Syrian refugee crisis. University of Toronto law professor and immigration and refugee specialist Audrey Macklin wonders why Canada should even limit the number of privately sponsored Syrian refugees but rather take its lead from Sweden and Germany and open our doors.
“We have seen when the government has the political will to diminish the impediments (to resettlement) they can do so,” says Macklin, pointing to the resettlement of 60,000 Vietnamese boat people between 1979 and 1981 or 5,000 Kosovars in 1999, Chilean refugees post Allende’s overthrow and South Asians after their expulsion from Uganda.
To speed up refugee resettlement Lifeline Syria and other groups are hoping Ottawa will relax some of the regulations that now make private sponsorship so lengthy and complex.
First on the list of most advocates is that the government loosens its requirement that Syrian refugees being sponsored by private groups of five must be designated as refugees by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.
Currently, private refugee resettlement can be handled in two different ways — through sponsorship by a group of five or more individuals and through sponsorship by groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee which have leaseholder agreements with the government dating back to 1979.
But if a refugee is sponsored by a group of five or more he or she needs to have refugee designation from the UNCHR. That isn’t the case for refugees resettled by groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee, says Brian Dyck, its national migration and resettlement co-ordinator.
Getting the paperwork or the UNCHR designation can be really difficult and cause a lot of barriers to the resettlement process, advocates agree. Says Alexandra Kotyk, executive director of Lifeline Syria: “It’s a difficult process. Many don’t have it. And it’s something that prohibits many from being able to apply for these programs.”
Next on her list is that family reunification programs be revamped, allowing Syrian refugees who have family here to settle in Canada by accessing permanent residence status through a temporary resident visa program.
Kotyk also hopes Ottawa will open up private sponsorships rather than limiting them. “I don’t want to assign a specific number except to say I think private sponsorship should be unlimited because private citizens are taking the responsibility to help fund the families for the first year,” she says. “I think that the numbers that have been given by all parties are a starting point and I hope they will increase them.”
In addition, she suggests more financial, human and logistical resources be put into the immigration system — both in Canada and in visa offices abroad — so more applications can be processed in a speedy fashion.
She’d also like to see the government make a clear commitment to increase the number of Syrian refugees in addition to and not at the expense of ongoing government commitments for private or government sponsored refugees.
Lifeline Syria would also like to see a matching program between Ottawa and every privately resettled Syrian refugee, meaning that for every privately settled refugee Ottawa sponsors one.
“We believe these are not difficult things to do,” says Kotyk.
“We are the only country in the world that allows for private sponsorship,” Naomi Alboim, a member of the board of directors for Lifeline Syria told the Star. “Now is an opportunity to step up and do something.”
She would like to see Ottawa send Canadian visa officers into the field to process Syrian refugees.
Adds Omidvar: “This is an extraordinary time. Why can’t Canada fly a team into the Budapest station? And say: ‘We’re open for business’.”
Others like the Canadian Council for Refugees would like Ottawa to commit to 10,000 government-assisted resettlement places, over and above Ottawa’s current pledges of support.