Refugee advocates say the Canadian government’s shortcomings in the area are being masked by the immigration chaos south of the border.
In the hours after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his original travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caught the imagination of Trump opponents in the U.S. and around the world with a single tweet:
“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada,” Trudeau wrote in late January.
But Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees says 2017 has actually been a “deeply disappointing” year so far when it comes to Canadian resettlement. “We appreciate the positive comments made by the prime minister.
“It’s important to make those statements of support, but it’s also important to marry some actions to those words,” Dench says.
“That’s what we have been looking for, and we’re still waiting for them to take some action.”
Dench says her dismay dates back to late 2016, when Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada unveiled its immigration level targets for 2017.
Of the 25,000 refugees Canada intends to resettle this year, just 7,500 will come in under the government-assisted category.
Dench and the CCR have suggested that number alone should be closer to 20,000. “We have taken in roughly the same number of government-assisted refugees for many years.
“We were shocked they would maintain this low level, especially given the growing international need for refugee resettlement,” Dench says.
While the CCR was happier with the 16,000 spots allocated for privately sponsored refugees, Dench says that level still falls way short of the demand among private sponsors who want to bring people in.
In any case, she says she’s uncomfortable with the lopsided balance of the two main streams of entry for refugees.
“The government should not be offloading responsibility for refugees on to the private sector, and that’s what is happening when you have all the number of government-assisted refugees to be so much lower than the private levels,” Dench says.
Jacqueline Swaisland, a lawyer with Toronto immigration and refugee law boutique Waldman & Associates, has seen first-hand the enthusiasm for private refugee sponsorship.
Just more than a year ago, she co-founded the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program, a scheme designed to connect groups of sponsors with experts in the process, as well as community organizations and pro bono legal support.
She says the program has kept up the momentum gained in the wake of the Syrian crisis, with more than 1,300 lawyers and law students now signed up to guide prospective private sponsors through the process.
“The positivity toward refugees has been phenomenal, especially when you see it in contrast to what is happening in the States. That said, the numbers we are taking, especially in light of the cuts in the U.S., are still not where they could be,” she says.
Another recent policy change has hampered the work Swaisland and her colleagues are trying to do for private sponsors.
At the turn of the year, the federal government capped the number of refugees it would accept from Syria and Iraq under its community sponsorship program at 1,000.
The program allowed private sponsors to bring in applicants from those two countries before they had obtained proof of their refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but the new quota for 2017 was already filled before the end of January.
“More than 90 per cent of Syrians simply don’t have the documentation they would need from the UNHCR, so it’s effectively capping the number that can come in from that country via private sponsorship,” Swaisland says.
“It would be great to have that cap lifted, especially since Syria was one of the countries affected by the U.S. travel ban.”
Dench says she was particularly disappointed by the Canadian government’s decision not to change its refugee targets in response to the events in the U.S., where the executive order that imposed the infamous travel ban also promised to halve the number of refugees the country had previously said it would accept in 2017, down to around 50,000.
“The situation in the U.S. is absolutely devastating for refugees, because they are the leading resettlement country.
“Even in years when Canada is doing something exceptional in terms of resettlement, we’re still doing less than the U.S. does in a regular year,” she says.
“It comes at the worst possible time, as the UN is looking for countries to increase the number they will take.”
During an emergency debate in the House of Commons following President Trump’s executive order, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen stood firm on Canada’s immigration intake, noting that the planned 2017 levels included a refugee allocation that was “historically high.”
In the same debate, the minister also rebuffed calls for Canada to abandon the Safe Third Country Agreement, which is designed to stop refugees from shopping for the country of their choice to claim asylum. Under the agreement, refugees who attempt to cross the border into Canada are returned to the U.S.
The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers called for an immediate suspension of the agreement after the Trump executive order.
“We are witnessing a dramatic shift away from basic norms of human rights and refugee protection in the US. In this environment, we simply cannot rely on the Trump administration to protect the refugees we turn away at our borders,” said CARL’s president, Mitch Goldberg, in a statement.
“Canada has a duty to suspend enforcement of the STCA immediately.”
IRCC spokeswoman Nathalie Schofield said in a statement to Law Times that the U.S. “has long been an ally in global resettlement” and that “the STCA remains an important tool for Canada and the U.S. to work together on the orderly handling of refugee claims made in our countries.”
However, she also noted that the IRPA mandates “continual review” of all nations Canada designates as safe third countries.
CARL member Ronalee Carey, an Ottawa-based immigration and refugee lawyer, says she understands the difficulty of interfering with immigration levels that take months of preparation for officials inside IRCC to set.
“It’s not like you can turn a machine like that around on a dime,” she says.
“But I don’t think that should mean you can’t respond to extraordinary circumstances. I think there are ways they could be flexible.”