Liberals quietly change Syrian refugee program, creating confusion

John McCallum
Immigration Minister John McCallum holds a news conference to update the Syrian refugee situation, in Ottawa, Wednesday, December 23, 2015. Canada has met its goal of admitting 25,000 Syrian refugees, but what happens next?. Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – Hundreds of Canadians who’ve come together to sponsor Syrian refugees are being told it could be next year before their new charges arrive, after a series of changes to the Liberals’ resettlement program.

The original goal of bringing in 25,000 refugees has been met, but the next step is unclear.

Caps on applications this year, a decrease in staff handling those and the return of a controversial travel-loan program are all prompting questions about what is going on with a program that once was priority one for the Liberal government.

“I think everybody assumed that the government was really interested in doing something serious about Syrian refugees and the 25,000 was just the start of it,” said former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who is part of a network of private sponsors which plans to hold an emergency meeting next week on the situation.

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“It’s as though the government has just said, oh well, there’s the promise, it’s all over.”

The changes essentially reverse much of what the previous Conservative government and then the Liberals did to respond to a surge in demand last fall for Canada to bring in more Syrians.

Staffing increases in the central processing office in Winnipeg and at missions overseas was the first step taken by the Tories and increased further when the Liberals took office, but they have now been cut back.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed on the issue Thursday but wouldn’t directly address the cuts.

“We continue to be engaged with the issue of Syrian refugees, making it a priority to continue to show that Canada is a strong and welcoming country,” he said.

In the Toronto area alone, upwards of 600 groups have spent months raising money, finding apartments and gathering supplies.

Some are being told it will be more than eight months before the family they are sponsoring arrives, while others hear that if they’ve not yet been matched with a family it’s unlikely they’ll see anyone before 2017.

READ MORE: Syrian refugee housing numbers improving, next step is finding jobs – McCallum

“There is so much conflicting information floating around,” said Allison Murray, who has been working with a group of Toronto residents since the fall to put together the funds to sponsor a family.

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“Our group is trying to be patient.”

It’s never been clear exactly how many privately sponsored Syrians would be accepted. There had been no caps on applications under the Conservatives or in the early part of the Liberal program.

As of March 14, there were 6,641 private cases in the inventory. Groups have been notified a cap will be placed on the number of applications accepted — as has been the custom for other refugee populations in recent years — but aren’t sure yet what it is.

Immigration Minister John McCallum said he is aware the enthusiasm to support Syrians won’t last forever

“We want to create the conditions where Canadians are able and as quickly as possible to sponsor those refugees,” he said.

Arrivals of refugees have slowed considerably since the government stopped running its own flights.

Between Feb. 27 and March 8, 600 new government-assisted refugees and 433 privately sponsored arrived. In the 12 days after, only nine government-assisted refugees and 16 privately sponsored arrived. Only one person who is part of a program that blends the two streams arrived in that time.

While the government is still covering the flight costs for government-assisted refugees, they’ve stopped doing so for privately sponsored ones who’ve yet to be interviewed. They will now either be forced to take out a government loan or have their sponsors pay the fare.

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The loan program was slammed in a government evaluation for placing an unfair burden on new arrivals. McCallum had promised it was under review.

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