Group says thousands of Syrian refugees are stuck in limbo as they wait for plane tickets

Radi poses for a photo with his son and wife, who names are omitted for security reasons, while waiting in an airport in Amman, Jordan, to board a plane to Canada, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015. AP Photo/Sam McNeil

A non-profit group working to get privately sponsored refugees to Canada says a backlog has formed when it comes time to purchase plane tickets, leading hundreds of Syrian families stranded in “tenuous circumstances.”

According to Canada4Refugees — which represents about 175 small groups of Canadians who have banded together to help refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East — there are around 500 privately sponsored Syrian families who have all the necessary paperwork to come to Canada, but can’t get their hands on tickets out of the war-torn region.

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The federal government hired the International Organization for Migration to secure exit permits from host governments and book plane tickets, explained John Sewell, a member of the Canada4Refugees steering committee. But they don’t seem to be keeping pace with demand.

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“There are lots of flights … no problem that way,” Sewell said. “We try and get in touch with the ministry, but they just say, ‘well, it takes time.'”

Canada4Refugees is asking Immigration Minister John McCallum to start sending government aircraft over to transport the approved families, as Ottawa did last winter during the height of its resettlement efforts.

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“We’re dealing with 500 families, it’s not a small number,” Sewell said. “Exit visas I don’t think are that hard to get, if there’s a country that’s approving it like Canada.”

The wait times for plane tickets have been stretching to 12 weeks in some cases, he added. Sewell said he was unaware of specific examples where a delayed family might be kept in a dangerous situation.

It’s not the first time private sponsors have raised concerns about how Syrians and other refugees are being brought to Canada. Last winter, there was backlash when Ottawa prioritized government-sponsored Syrians as it attempted to meet a target of 25,000 Syrians arriving in Canada by the end of January.

A ‘measured’ plan

In response to a request for comment on the alleged backlog, a spokesperson for the department of Citizenship and Immigration referred Global News to a series of publicly available webpages that explain how the resettlement of privately sponsored refugees works, and how long each stage of the process typically lasts.

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The accelerated processing that took place last winter is no longer in effect, the department notes.

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The last step before departure, which involves securing exit visas and plane tickets, is now supposed to take between one and two months, according to the government materials.

During this time, refugees can pack and participate in special orientation sessions to prepare them for life in Canada.

“This is a measured, orderly plan which is sensitive to the needs of refugees and provides a predictable pace of arrivals for sponsors.”

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But Sewell says that explanation is unacceptable, especially given the fact that so many Canadians have stepped forward to act as sponsors and are now seeing the wait time for plane tickets lengthened to three months or more.

“That’s not good enough,” he said. “We think that this is very bad for the future. If there is all this interest in refugees the government should be trying to say, ‘Good, let’s bring in lots of them.’ Sponsorship groups are the way to do it.”


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