Sponsors are waiting too long to welcome refugees

When Janet’s Ottawa-based sponsoring group decided to sponsor a Syrian family in 2015, they expected a swift resettlement process.

“At the time, there was a lot of momentum and enthusiasm”, she said, as many of the group’s members were keen on supporting Syrian refugees at the cusp of the crisis in 2015.

Now, however, it seems this momentum may have waned a bit.

“It’s not that they’re not interested,” she noted, but “we’re not able to capitalize on this enthusiasm” because of the long wait. Janet is concerned that some volunteers may no longer have the time or resources to commit to the Syrian family once they arrive, because the volunteer's situation may have changed.

Janet’s group is among many others impacted by long processing times. Over 97% of the Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs) surveyed for CPJ’s report on private sponsorship challenges also raised concerns about long wait times. One SAH representative mentioned that “protracted wait times inhibit the energy of the group and the ability to sustain interest.” Another SAH noted that “we have lost churches who will not wait for six years to see their sponsored family arrive.”

It’s clear that our private sponsorship program has its challenges, with long wait times constituting a major part of these drawbacks. It’s also clear that many sponsorship groups, including church-connected groups, are not sure of what they can do about this situation. They do not know if their actions can lead to policy change.

“I don’t know what we could do,” Janet admitted, in response to the long wait her group is experiencing. “With time going by, you start to feel really powerless,” she said.

Acknowledging one’s powerlessness in a situation is a great way to set change in motion. It has the potential to transform a frustrating situation into an empowering moment.

Sponsoring groups can become empowered by advocating for policy changes. Many sponsors do not often engage in advocacy because they do not think their efforts can yield any impact. However, past successes, such as the government’s reinstatement of the Interim Federal Health Program for refugees, show how the private sponsors and other interested groups can take action that leads to policy change.

Other sponsors do not participate in advocacy because they do not know how it works. There are ways sponsoring groups can act to challenge long wait times. Sponsors can organize meetings with their Members of Parliament, to express their position on wait times, and to challenge their M.P. to take action on the issue. CPJ staff had a meeting with an M.P. in Ottawa, on the day the report was launched. We expressed our position on the concerns SAHs raised, and listened as the M.P. made commitments to support our advocacy work on these issues.

Calling your M.P. may seem inconsequential to the long wait many refugees currently experience, but it matters more than you think. If we all decided to advocate for lower wait times for refugee applications, the government would be galvanized to speed up the process. Additional resources would be provided for visa posts abroad that need more money and staff to process applications faster. Advocacy can yield tremendous benefits for the private sponsorship program if it is well-informed.

CPJ has an Advocacy Toolkit on offer that outlines ways sponsors and Canadians can take simple steps to advocate for better refugee policies. The kit describes how anyone can develop an advocacy strategy, and maps out concrete steps on things like letter writing and meetings with legislators and civil servants. With the right knowledge, advocacy can be used to shape public policy and discourse in ways that will enhance the private sponsorship program.

We must move away from the state of powerlessness that comes from being overwhelmed by the current state of our private sponsorship policies. Instead, we must begin to act through advocacy to change these policies. When we realize that we have a role to play in effecting policy change, we’ll move from powerlessness to action. Let’s take the first step today.

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*The interviewee has been given the alias “Janet” to respect the privacy of the refugee family awaiting
resettlement in Canada.

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About the author

Bolu Coker is a policy intern at Citizens for Public Justice, a faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa.