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October 29, 2015

CANADA: Easing Barriers for Syrian Refugees

By Laura Gwayumba

In the past few months, an increasing number of Canadians have called for government action in response to the urgent Syrian refugee crisis.

While communities and individuals are stepping up to assist by participating in private sponsorship, barriers remain, both in terms of the numbers of refugees coming to Canada and in the supports available once they arrive.

The Conservative government pledged to resettle 10,000 refugees by September 2016, in addition to 23,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of 2015. Canada has so far welcomed 25,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

While the previous government responded to some concerns about the crisis, there still remains more to be done by the newly elected Liberal government.

Canadian Government eases restrictions

On September 19, the Government of Canada committed to temporarily ease restrictions relating to the Syrian refugee sponsorship process. This included updating Syrian refugee applicants and sponsors on the status of applications by the end of December, as well as doubling the number of staff working on processing applicants at the Centralized Processing Office in Winnipeg (CPO-W). Documentation required for sponsorship by Canadian citizens would also be temporarily reduced to encourage additional participation.

Along with this, additional visa officers would be sent to embassies in Ankara, Beirut, and Amman.

Along with these commitments, the Government of Canada created a Syria Emergency Relief Fund (SERF). The government also agreed to match donations to registered Canadian charities working for humanitarian relief in Syria and the region up to $100 million until December 31, providing the matched funding to the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

What barriers remain and what more is needed?

It is encouraging to see some barriers addressed by the previous government’s recent efforts to fast-track processing and sponsorship of Syrian refugees. However, it is clear that barriers to full support remain.

There is an urgent need for Canada to bring in more refugees as winter approaches. As of October 5th, 2,563 Syrian refugees have been settled in Canada (by both government and private sponsorship). Thousands are still waiting to be processed.

The new Liberal government needs to act quickly to meet its promised goal of settling 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015.

And further supports are needed for refugees upon their arrival to Canada.

The new government has committed $250 million to improved processing. But there also needs to be additional support for programs related to the resettlement process, including accessing education, training for employment, and other social and cultural services.

In addition, the government needs to follow through on its promise to fully restore the Interim Federal Health Program. The Interim Federal Health (IFH) cuts, made in 2012, have prevented some refugees and refugee claimants from accessing basic health care coverage in Canada. Due to the increased cost burden, SAHs report one-third of sponsoring groups involved in the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program have had to decrease or terminate their sponsorship.

In July, the Federal Court ruled that cuts to the IFH program were “cruel and unusual” and gave the federal government until early November to change the legislation. Restoring this program is an action that can and should be taken quickly.

Further, there needs to be improved government consultation with SAHs regarding decisions that will affect sponsorship groups.

The recent efforts to fast-track the processing and settlement of Syrian refugees was a good start, but much more is needed to address the urgency of the crisis. The new government has made some important commitments that now they need to work quickly to implement.

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