Vancouver Island activists call out federal government over Canada’s refugee backlog

Activists call out federal government over Canada's refugee backlog.
Activists call out federal government over Canada's refugee backlog.

A Vancouver Island group is among many across the country upset because the Syrian families they’ve raised thousands of dollars to sponsor and bring to Canada are still stuck overseas.

Last year, more than 40,000 Syrian refugees were welcomed to the country as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau encouraged Canadians to sponsor.

Victoria residents Kristina Stevens and Christine Johnston are among the thousands across the country who responded to that call.

READ MORE: Is Canada’s reputation as a safe haven for refugees deserved?

Their private sponsorship group through First Unitarian Church of Victoria raised about $72,000, $10,000 of which was out of Stevens’ pocket, money she had saved for a home renovation.

“I have an emotional connection… My son-in-law was, as a child, a refugee from Vietnam and he’s an electrical engineer now and they have a good life in the Toronto area and three grandchildren for me… So I immediately felt that there was some future grandmother that I could help,” Stevens said.

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They’ve been trying for over a year to bring a Syrian couple and their four children to Victoria, where they have a relative.

The family of six, they say, is stuck in Turkey.

“I just want to see them get off that plane,” Stevens said.

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Stevens said they followed through with the application process and were told the family would arrive within a few months.

“The family was told that too when they went for an interview at the Canadian embassy,” Johnston said.

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Activists, including former Toronto mayor John Sewell, say the backlog of refugees waiting to get into the country has gotten out of hand.

“It means that refugees from all over, it’s not just Syria, it’s people from all around the world who are in real trouble, south Sudan, western Africa… and that’s where the backlog of 45,000 refugees comes in. Only about 15,000 of those would be from Syria,” Sewell said.

Anglican Diocese of BC’s refugee program coordinator, Rebecca Siebert, calls the federal government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis last year, a blitz.

“There’s a window of time that the government put extra staff and resources to be able to process these people to come quickly and as soon as that window ended, the resources and staff disappeared,” Siebert said.

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Now sponsorship groups across the country are planning letter writing campaigns, Siebert said, hoping to seal promises they say were broken.

In an email statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said it’s doing it’s best to handle the caseload in a sustainable way.

Adding that “as of May 30, 2017, IRCC has processed more than 99 per cent of the 12,000 privately sponsored Syrian refugee applications that had been received by March 31, 2016.”