B.C. took in just 72 government-assisted refugees from Syria over the past two and a half years – more than half of them coming to Surrey – and advocates say there’s room for so many more.
They compare Canada’s response to the current refugee crisis, in which Ottawa has pledged to take 10,000 Syrians spread out over three years, to how the country stepped up to accept fleeing Vietnamese boat people.
In 1980, Canada welcomed more than 19,200 southeast Asian refugees and nearly 60,000 more were sponsored over two years by churches and other groups.
“If there is political will, we can move mountains,” said Chris Friesen, chair of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance. “So far, we haven’t seen that under the Harper government. We have been far more generous in the past than we have in recent times.”
The current trickle of arriving government-assisted Syrians, perhaps a dozen a year into Surrey, is a drop in the bucket of the city’s rapidly growing population, which climbs by about 1,000 new residents a month.
The number of additional church-sponsored Syrian refugees is uncertain, but is likely tiny, according to Friesen, who is also director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.
Most of the 72 Syrians have come to B.C. from Lebanon, but others have arrived via Turkey and Malaysia, he said, and they come from a range of ethnic backgrounds from Kurds to Sunni Muslims.
“Surrey, Burnaby and New West are the primary destinations at the moment, largely due to the ability to find affordable housing,” Friesen said.
Friesen said he and other immigrant advocates want Ottawa to enact an emergency refugee plan that was drawn up as a contingency in 2002 following the Kosovo refugee crisis to swiftly bring in a significant number of additional refugees, in consultation with the UN.
In addition, he says the government can and should issue minister’s permits to immediately reunify extended family members of Syrians already in Canada.
That provision allows those family members who are in danger to come here in as little as 72 hours, leaving some aspects of refugee application processing, such as medical exams and clearances, to be conducted in Canada.
“The minister has a number of tools at his discretion which currently have not been used and given the current crisis should immediately be initiated.”
As for the slow pace of meeting Canada’s commitment to take in Syrians, Friesen said that’s due to the government’s insistence most be sponsored by the faith community, rather than being government-assisted.
“They should have committed to 10,000 government-assisted refugees and then allow church communities to undertake additional sponsorship,” Friesen said.
Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland believes there are plenty of churches and other groups and individuals eligible and willing to sponsor more refugees, but Ottawa has arbitrarily imposed a quota that creates a slow bottleneck for processing sponsored applications.
“The problem is the immigration minister is processing about seven or eight (Syrian) cases a day,” Kurland said, arguing that could be changed at the stroke of a pen as there’s no lack of staff or resources. “If the minister says instead of processing about eight cases a day, process 20 or 25, it’s an immediate solution.”
As it sits, he said, a flawlessly completed new Syrian refugee application filed now faces a 42-month processing wait.
“The only thing blocking the entry to Canada is the minister’s decision on the quota.”
He said accelerating approval of sponsored refugees would come at no cost to the government because sponsor groups are volunteering to pay.
“They are ponying up $50,000 cash to cover the expenses for the most important first year in Canada – accommodation, food, you name it,” he said.
“Because Canada allows these sponsorship groups – and it’s the only country doing it – it’s the people who want refugees here paying the bill, not the taxpayer. So what’s the problem? For me it’s a no-brainer.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
A groundswell of public demand to aid refugees has followed the tragic drowning of two young Syrian boys and their mother, whose sister in Coquitlam wanted to bring them all to B.C.
“People want to do something,” said Chris Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.
“Many are looking into how to sponsor a refugee.”
He suggests Lower Mainland residents consider volunteering with one of the agencies that assist refugees.
“We are always looking for longer term families to be matched with refugee families to provide them with additional support services.”
Other avenues for making a difference include donating to charities assisting refugees overseas or the UN Refugee Agency.
NEW REFUGEES IN B.C.
(Government-assisted refugee arrivals in B.C. in the first half of 2015)
Individuals: 199(110 adults, 16 teens, 46 children under 13, and six seniors age 65 and up)
Top source countries:Iraq – 59Iran – 51Syria – 32Myanmar – 11Burundi – 8
Top destination cities:Surrey – 84 (53 %)Burnaby – 31 (19 %)Coquitlam – 20 (13 %)New Westminster – 16 (10 %)Vancouver – 8 (5 %)