OTTAWA – The federal government is seeking to offload some of its international promises to refugees onto the private sector.
They’re asking community groups to sponsor 1,000 of the refugees the Canadian government has told the United Nations it will resettle over the next three years.
But at the same time, they are restricting the groups’ ability to sponsor refugees themselves by placing caps on private applications.
The decisions are raising concerns from not-for-profit groups that they are being forced to carry out the Immigration department’s objectives instead of their own.
“This minister … has found little ways to tweak it into being more able to name groups and curtail what formerly was much more open for private sponsors to name who they wish,” said Edwin Wiebe, national co-ordinator of refugee programs for the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada.
Refugee resettlement in Canada is a shared activity between the government and about 80 groups, which have formal agreements with the Ottawa to sponsor refugees.
Canada takes in about 10 per cent of the refugees resettled by the United Nations each year. In 2011, Canada and the U.S. admitted four-fifths of all the refugees resettled by the UN in total.
In Canada, that translated into 7,365 government-assisted refugees and 5,585 privately sponsored ones, according to government statistics.
Between 2006-2011, the top five source countries for government-assisted refugees were Iraq, Colombia, Myanmar, Bhutan and Afghanistan, according to an analysis of statistics provided by Citizenship and Immigration.
Private groups also seek to resettle refugees identified by the United Nations, but often choose source countries or individuals with some connection to their religious or community organizations. Between 2006-2011, the top five source countries for privately-sponsored refugees were Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.
But now there are caps on the number of applications private groups can submit, as well as other restrictions.
“We were not allocated any spot out of any African visa post. We received only 36 spots last year. How was I supposed to respond to hundreds of congregational requests to sponsor?” asked Khwaka Kukubo, an adviser to the refugee program at the United Church of Canada.
The government says the caps are in place so missions can work through the enormous backlog of applications, adding they don’t affect the number of privately-sponsored refugees who actually arrive in Canada each year.
But some say it reflects a change in government priorities.
“They are not willing to say, ‘OK, people want to sponsor out of Nairobi so we’ll have to find some way of putting more resources so those ones can come,’ ” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“Instead they say, ‘No, you can’t sponsor those ones. If you want to sponsor refugees, sponsor the ones that we will identify for you.’ ”
A spokesman for the Citizenship and Immigration department said the decision to ask private groups to help settle 1,000 government-assisted refugees was made because research shows refugees fare better when they are brought to Canada by private organizations.
“By providing up to six months of income support for (UN-referred) refugees supported by sponsors, we hope to help organizations new to refugee sponsorship and encourage existing civil society groups to sponsor refugees who have few or no pre-existing family or community links in Canada,” said Remi Lariviere in an e-mail.
But community groups pin the changes to budget cuts — they say it’s cheaper for the government to ask private groups to pick up part of the tab for their international obligations.
It is putting groups in an awkward position, said Dench.
“Some sponsors are feeling quite manipulated because they are feeling ok, they’ve closed the door for what we used to do and what we want to do, but on the other hand if we’re a group that wants to do sponsorship, shouldn’t we give them something?” she explained.
The department’s Lariviere said Canada is seeking to increase the number of refugees it resettles to a high of up to 14,500 refugees and other vulnerable populations by 2013.
But both Dench and Wiebe said it’s not certain that goal can be met.
Wiebe questions whether the voluntary sector has the capacity or the resources to help resettle more refugees.
And Dench said the risk is that groups won’t have the desire to sponsor refugees with whom they don’t have a connection.
“So then if the numbers are not met then the understanding is that would mean that refugees don’t get to come at all,” she said.
“And if the government doesn’t meet the goals that it set itself, some of the sponsors are worried that they may end up taking the blame.”