October 8, 2015

CANADA: 2015 Election Bulletin: A New Approach to Refugees

Refugees, currently numbering 20 million internationally, are among the most vulnerable populations in the world. Many of those escaping conflict and persecution come to Canada seeking safety and protection. However, changes to our federal immigration system have led to a steady decrease in the number of refugee claimants accepted in Canada per year. This comes at a time when the world is facing one of the worst refugee crises in modern history.

Refugees face unimaginable hardships. They have been forced to abandon their homes in order to save their lives and have likely witnessed and endured extreme acts of violence on their journey to safety. They arrive in Canada suffering from trauma, with little in the way of money or possessions.

Some of the hardships refugees face when they arrive in Canada include limited or no access to healthcare services and social assistance and reduced timeframes to prove their claims. These policy changes have jeopardized the safety of refugees and have eroded the fairness of our immigration system.

“Each individual refugee is a child of God, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have been in camps for more than a decade. Children are born and raised in camps.” —Rose Dekker

In such cases, God calls us to “extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13). To those who are not only strangers, but have been forced to flee life-threatening situations, we must demonstrate an even higher level of mercy and compassion.

As faithful citizens, we must recognize the extraordinary vulnerability of refugees and embrace our duty to ease their plight. Though refugees are the ones most affected by these policy changes, they are also the least likely to speak out in their own defence. We have the opportunity to use our collective voice to stop these injustices. Citizens play a unique role in ensuring that our government implements policies that protect all those who live within our borders, regardless of their immigration status.

Canadians take pride in our country’s multiculturalism. To truly embrace it, we need a new approach to how we treat those who seek refuge within our borders. We also need to remove obstacles that impede their successful resettlement. Public justice demands reform of our refugee system.

Syrian Refugee Crisis
Canada has been slow to respond to the crisis faced by refugees from Syria. While our government has contributed millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the region, it has been reluctant to commit to resettling refugees in Canada.

The UN Refugee Agency has called for 100,000 Syrians to be resettled worldwide. Canada has typically taken in ten per cent of international targets. Yet in 2013, the federal government committed to resettling just 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. This target was only met in March 2015.

Many organizations, including CPJ, called on our government to increase this commitment to 10,000 refugees. Fortunately, the government responded and pledged to resettle another 10,000 over the next three years, from 2015 to 2017.

However, it is still unclear how this will be accomplished given the slow record of success so far. Private sponsors, most of which are faith groups, are expected to resettle 60 per cent of this quota. No consultation took place before the announcement was made to verify these numbers would be achievable. And no additional resources were offered to help resettlement efforts. This is consistent with the government’s lack of consultation with stakeholders on this issue in recent years.

QUESTION: Do you believe the government’s pledge to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years is sufficient? How will you meet this target?

Consultation with Refugee Sponsors

One way faith communities welcome newcomers is through sponsoring and resettling refugees. The private sponsorship program was initiated in large part by faith communities in response to the massive influx of refugees fleeing Vietnam in the 1970s, and has since become a crucial method of providing protection for refugees in Canada.

In CPJ’s 2014 research study, “Private Sponsorship and Public Policy,” churches and faith communities identified six major challenges to refugee sponsorship: long wait times and processing delays; cuts to the Interim Federal Health (IFH) program; a lack of government consultation; a lowering in the age of “dependent” children who may be sponsored (from 21 to 18); limited allocations of sponsorship applications; and visa post caps, which limit the number of refugees who may be sponsored from a specific region.

In 2012, the federal government made significant cuts to health coverage for refugees. Despite a recent federal court ruling that these cuts are “cruel and unusual” they remain largely in place. This means that sponsors take on additional financial liability. In fact, nearly one-third of church-connected sponsoring groups report that this has led them to decrease or end their involvement in the refugee sponsorship program.

QUESTION: Will you reinstate the pre- 2012 Interim Federal Health Program?

It is critical that our government seek and consider input from stakeholders, including refugees, refugee sponsors, and those who work directly with them, when developing or making alterations to refugee policy.

QUESTION: What will you do to ensure that private sponsors and faith communities are included in making resettlement decisions?

Protecting Refugee Claimants
Refugee claimants, also known as asylum seekers, are not sponsored to come to Canada but make their claim for protection after arriving here. Just over half of all applications are accepted. However, this does not mean that applications that are denied were not filed in good faith. In fact, only three per cent of claims are found to be “manifestly unfounded” or to have “no credible basis.”

For nearly six decades, the federal government has disallowed provinces from denying refugee claimants (and other non-residents) access to social assistance. If a province or territory chose to impose a residency requirement for social assistance, they would risk losing federal funding.

This changed with passage of Bill C-43, the Fall 2014 omnibus budget bill. This bill allowed provinces and territories to withdraw social assistance for refugee applicants without losing federal funding. This exposes refugee claimants to incredible risk. During the time between their arrival and when they become permanent residents, claimants rely heavily on income supports to make ends meet. They have few other options if they were to lose them.

In order to protect refugee claimants, our federal government must ensure that they have equal access to social assistance regardless of where they reside, their method of arrival, or the stage in their application process.

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