“We as a committee have all the resources to be able to support this family,” said Shannon Hawke with First St. Andrew’s United Church Refugee Sponsorship Committee in London, Ont.
But there’s a major obstacle for private sponsorship groups to overcome before they can apply to bring over the eligible families – who often have relatives already in Canada.
In order to be privately sponsored, Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada requires most Afghans who’ve fled to other countries like Pakistan and Iran, to have official refugee recognition from that foreign state or from the United Nation High Commission for Refugees.
Though they meet the definition of a refugee, official status is something very few Afghans are able to obtain, in part because that status involves protections from states that are often unwilling to provide them.
“The family we’ve been trying to sponsor has not been able to get refugee status. We’ve been working with them for over a year,” Hawke said.
Hawke says her private sponsorship group has been fundraising for the requirement of nearly $90,000 for a family of six currently in hiding in Pakistan where they face possible deportation back to Afghanistan.
That’s why so many groups like hers across the country jumped at a temporary federal program that launched less than two months ago, waiving the need for that official refugee status, as long as the refugees meet the Canadian government’s criteria to be privately sponsored.
“This program was really the thing we were excited about because it was going to allow us to finally get them here. We were scrambling over the last six weeks to get our application together. The application process is really onerous,” Hawke said.
But in those six weeks after it launched, the program reached its cap of 3,000 refugees leaving many sponsors, like Stephen Watt, frustrated and wondering why an arbitrary limit exists when the need is so high. Watt, who co-founded a non-profit dedicated to supporting refugees called Northern Lights Canada, wrote a letter to the federal minister responsible and is waiting to hear back.
“It’s a crushing blow to many people across the country who are still preparing these applications because it’s their only hope to get people out,” Watt said, adding, “There was no cap on Syrians when they could be sponsored without status or the Iraqi’s in 2016 so I don’t understand this cap.”
“We know it started to fill up 20 or 30 minutes after it opened – there were messages that the inbox filled up so there is a very high demand,” Iris Challoner, MOSAIC’s refugee sponsorship program manager, told Global News.
Challoner said she’s pleased the government opened this temporary program and hopes there will be more refugees without official refugee recognition status who are accepted, highlighting Afghans are one of the largest refugee populations in the world.
For Farkhonda Rajabe, MOSAIC’s Afghan Response Initiative coordinator, the plea is personal. Rajabe is from Afghanistan herself and came to Canada in 2017 as a refugee, having been targeted for her work as a prominent women’s rights activist. Rajabe says the situation remains dire for Afghans, especially religious minorities, women, LGBTQ2 community members and girls, with frequent bombings targeting the most vulnerable.
“There was recently an attack with more than 100 Hazara girls killed and they were all 18 or younger and they were there to do a mock university entrance test,” Rajabe said, adding, “Even those who made it to Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are living in fear of deportation because they can’t get refugee status determination.”
The hopeful-sponsorship groups are calling on Ottawa to remove the cap on the temporary program, but Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser told Global News that’s not in the plan.
“We don’t currently have plans to extend it to further numbers because it would eat away at the allocations committed to other people who are trying to sponsor as well,” Fraser said.
First, St. Andrew’s United Church Refugee Sponsorship Committee is urging other groups across the country to get in contact with them by email ( email@example.com) as they continue appealing to the feds to accept applications under this temporary program for Afghans, for a full year without a cap.
“Funds are being raised by family and friends and other caring volunteers, it’s not coming out of government’s pocket, so I don’t know why they would handicap it with a limit like this,” Watt said.
Watt highlights how a similar program exempting the need for refugee status determination for those fleeing Syria and Iraq to be privately sponsored in 2015 and 2016 was not capped the way this temporary program for Afghans has been.
“This program ran without limits from Sept. 19, 2015, and throughout 2016, and resulted in about 19,000 Syrians coming to Canada during that amnesty period. In 2017, that program was finally capped, with only the first 1,000 applications for those without refugee status determination being accepted,” Watt said in an email.
Tens of thousands of people fled Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 after a 20-year war. Many who couldn’t get out then have been desperately trying to find routes to new lives and thousands are stuck in neighbouring countries, without officially being declared refugees at risk of being deported.
Canada has welcomed more than 25,000 Afghans since August of 2021 and quietly launched the temporary program to help those without documents on Oct. 17.