How Canadians opened their hearts to refugees

Nice historical piece regarding the origins of the private sponsorship program and the pivotal role Mennonites played in its creation:

Few government contracts have stood the test of time as well as a simply worded deal between Canada and its people that has not only lasted four decades but continues to bolster the country’s reputation for compassion.

The 11-page sponsorship agreement, signed between Ottawa and the Mennonite Church on March 5, 1979, in response to the “boat people” crisis, became the blueprint for Canada’s private refugee resettlement program that has allowed Canadians to play an active role in helping refugees start a new life here.

“My family and I wouldn’t be here without it,” said Ka Lee-Paine, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came here at age 2 with her family in 1979, among the first wave of people accepted under the private refugee sponsorship program.

“We had complete strangers helping us out. The sponsorship meant I could have a good life, get a great education and be a strong woman,” added the now 42-year-old Kitchener teacher. “Ninety-nine per cent of us do understand how fortunate we are to have made it to Canada and we strive to be productive citizens of this country.”

With the help of groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee serving as guarantors and administrators, Canadians have brought almost 350,000 refugees to Canada by providing the newcomers with at least one year of financial and social support.

During the Syrian refugee crisis, Canada has seen a renewed interest in private sponsorships, which accounted for half of the 60,000 Syrians resettled here; the rest were sponsored by the federal government.

Organizations that have sponsorship agreements with the federal government handle applications from individual community groups, who in turn are responsible for raising funds to support the refugees during their first year in the country as well as creating a social network to help them navigate their new lives and find housing and jobs. There are now more than 100 sponsorship agreement holders, mostly faith groups, across Canada.

The mass exodus of Indochinese refugees was sparked by the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. As American soldiers were evacuated from the South Vietnamese capital, Communist troops from the north swept in, hoisting their flags and spreading panic.

Hundreds of thousands of desperate people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fled to neighbouring countries by boat. Many didn’t make it, either drowning at sea or being attacked by pirates. Others ended up languishing for years in overcrowded refugee camps.

In 1978, Ottawa passed a new immigration law with a provision to allow private sponsorships if Canadians would accept full responsibility for the refugees for a year.

But there were no takers, said Mike Molloy, who was director of refugee policies in the Immigration Department at the time.

“Refugee advocates and churches were speaking against it and intimidating others not to get involved. There wasn’t a single sponsorship application coming in,” recalled Molloy, 74, who officially retired from the federal service in 2003.

“The Mennonite Central Committee was a gift. They came to us in late 1978 with a clear altruistic motivation. As a faith community that came here as refugees, they were confident and pragmatic. They played straight with us and we played straight with them.”

Canada had welcomed more than 21,000 Mennonite refugees from Russia in the 1920s and another 8,000 from Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and the community was eager to play a part in helping the boat people, said Bill Janzen, who was tasked by the Mennonite committee with negotiating the deal with Ottawa in 1979.

“Our community was experienced in helping refugees get settled with jobs and a place to live. We had been active with our aid work in Vietnam since 1954. We sympathized with those fleeing from Communist totalitarian regimes,” said Janzen, 75, who was MCC’s office director in Ottawa in 1979.

“It’s human nature to imagine the worst-case scenario and worry about any legal problems, health and financial needs of the people they sponsored. That’s why we decided to step up as an organization for them to fall back on and help them overcome the fear of liability.”

With a mandate from his board to make a deal with the government, Janzen asked for a meeting with senior immigration officials on Feb. 2, 1979. He arrived in Ottawa with a rough outline of what would later turn into the 11-page agreement.

Gordon Barnett, an experienced government negotiator, was Janzen’s counterpart at the bargaining table.

He said one of the sticking points of the negotiation was over the responsibility to provide language classes to privately sponsored refugees.

“It didn’t start out smoothly. Why should the government offer language classes to refugees sponsored by churches? That should be their problem,” recalled Barnett, now 75, who once belonged to a team on the Privy Council tasked with drafting the language rights for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and who retired from the Immigration Department in 1996.

“It was a time when the Indochinese boat people were filling the news and the government was under undue pressure to do something. We were negotiating with the Mennonites and they were so willing to help. We met a few more times and the deal was signed within weeks.”

The agreement laid out the eligibility of who could be a sponsor and the criteria to be sponsored, as well as the sponsorship process, roles and responsibilities — with Ottawa ultimately agreeing to pick up the tab for language training.

The Mennonite agreement inspired groups such as the Presbyterian Church of Canada and Council of Christian Reformed Churches to follow suit. By August 1979, 28 national church organizations as well as Catholic and Anglican dioceses were on board.

By the end of that year, 5,456 private sponsorships had been received for 29,169 refugees, surpassing the 21,000 goal set by the government.

In the end, Canada would roll out the welcome mat to 60,000 Indochinese refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s, half of them through private sponsorships.

“When I look back on my career, this agreement with the Mennonites was something I really felt good about. At the end, we had a really well-negotiated document because what we negotiated was fair,” said Barnett.

“I thought when the Indochinese refugee crisis was over, the agreement would become a historical document. I never thought it would go on forever. I’m just amazed that it stood the test of time and is still useful to this day.”

Brian Dyck, the Mennonite committee’s current national migration and resettlement program co-ordinator, said the private sponsorship program is unique in that it allows Canadians to be hands-on in helping refugees.

“You have a broad range of people in the community who bring together their social capital to the process. This has helped build Canadians’ awareness of refugee issues over the last 40 years,” said Dyck. “It helps build social cohesion and instills a stronger sense of volunteerism in Canadians.”

Source: How Canadians opened their hearts to refugees

Parrainage de réfugiés syriens: des citoyens passent la nuit dehors

A good news story that Quebec is far from monolithic in its views on immigration and refugees:

Des Québécois ont passé la nuit d’hier à aujourd’hui devant les locaux du ministère de l’Immigration afin de s’assurer que leur demande de parrainage de réfugiés syriens soit parmi les 750 qui seront acceptées pour étude dès la réouverture du programme aujourd’hui.

La file d’attente devant les bureaux du ministère de l’Immigration, de la Diversité et de l’Inclusion du Québec (MIDI) a commencé vers 16h, hier. Le premier sur place est arrivé avec une chaise et de quoi passer la nuit dans la rue. «On n’a pas le choix d’être ici si on veut être sûr que notre demande passe», a-t-il confié, vers 21h.

Derrière lui, à cette heure-là, neuf autres personnes attendaient rue Notre-Dame, certains sur de petites chaises, d’autres munis de leur sac de couchage.

Depuis janvier 2017, le volume important de demandes de parrainage de réfugiés syriens a forcé le MIDI à arrêter momentanément le programme. Dès aujourd’hui, les demandeurs pourront de nouveau soumettre leur dossier.

Les portes ouvrent ce matin à 8h30. En tout, 750 dossiers de parrainage seront étudiés par le Ministère. Seulement 100 pourront être déposés par des particuliers qui souhaitent parrainer un groupe de deux à cinq personnes. C’est surtout les parrains pour cette catégorie de dossier qui étaient en file hier. «On imagine qu’il va y avoir bien plus que 100 personnes, donc je m’assure de ma place pour que le messager prenne ma place demain», explique une dame, cinquième en ligne, installée dans une chaise pliante.

Stratégie commune

Tous ont la même stratégie : attendre leur messager, qui prendra la relève pour déposer leur dossier. Car aucun dossier remis en mains propres ne sera accepté, les documents devront obligatoirement être déposés par service de messagerie.

«Moi, il est là avec moi déjà», a lancé une femme, pointant l’homme à ses côtés. Elle a payé le messager pour la nuit, afin d’être certaine que sa demande soit parmi les premières déposées.

«Le fait de devoir venir faire la ligne comme ça démontre qu’il n’y a pas assez de place pour les demandes de parrainage», a observé une jeune femme, assise sur son sac de couchage, à côté d’une amie. «Ceux qui n’auront pas notre chance vont devoir attendre une autre année, a-t-elle ajouté. Mais on parle de réfugiés, et beaucoup d’entre eux ne peuvent pas attendre un an.»

«Chacun pour soi»

«Je ne suis vraiment pas confiante, j’ai peur qu’administrativement, ce soit le chaos demain», a avoué une des personnes en ligne. Autour d’elle, plusieurs ont hoché la tête, en signe d’approbation.

Elle a également indiqué craindre un grand désordre à l’ouverture des portes du ministère. «On ne sait pas ce qui va arriver quand la file va s’étendre et qu’il y aura plus de demandes que ce qu’ils vont accepter.»

«Ce que je trouve dommage, c’est que ça nous oblige à être chacun pour soi, pour s’assurer sa place, alors qu’on veut tous aider des gens», ajoute une autre dame, à ses côtés.

Hier soir, les quelques personnes en file ont inscrit leur nom, en ordre sur une feuille, pour avoir une liste de leur ordre d’arrivée. «C’est très informel, on ne sait même pas si ça va être respecté», s’est-elle inquiétée.

«Je pense que le Ministère fait de son mieux, a quant à lui affirmé le premier citoyen dans la file. Mais ça pourrait être mieux organisé, c’est certain, car la demande est vraiment très haute par rapport au nombre de places. Beaucoup de dossiers se sont accumulés depuis l’arrêt du programme.»

McCallum reverses changes for intake of privately sponsored Syrian refugees

More flexible approach and response to criticism than the previous government:

Immigration Minister John McCallum is reversing changes to the private sponsorship of Syrian refugees program after a public outcry.

The Canadian Press has learned that the immigration department will now process all applications for Syrians received as of today with an eye towards getting a further 10,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of this year or early 2017.

Private groups were caught off guard after the government scaled back efforts to resettle Syrians once the Liberals achieved their goal of resettling 25,000 people by the end of last month.

In addition to cutting staff processing Syrian applications, the government decided to limit the number of cases it would accept this year.

The move prompted some sponsorship groups to question whether the Liberal government was truly committed to refugees and left many disappointed that it could take as long as a year to welcome Syrians to Canada.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, McCallum says the government is doing all it can to respond to a surge in demand that he called historic and unlikely to be repeated.

Source: McCallum reverses changes for intake of privately sponsored Syrian refugees – The Globe and Mail

As resources dwindle, churches worry refugee response will slow

Another aspect to the refugee crisis. Report might have benefited from looking at the activities of the younger churches (e.g., evangelicals), churches with specific-ethnic group clienteles, and of course other faith groups to provide a more complete picture:

Slightly more than a decade ago, Canada admitted about twice as many government-assisted refugees as privately sponsored, but the streams began to converge after the Conservative government took office in 2006. By 2013, the number of new permanent residents who came as privately sponsored refugees, whose expenses in their first year in Canada are borne by citizens or faith groups, surpassed the number being assisted exclusively by the government, according to Library of Parliament research.

“When you look at these churches that sponsor refugees you’re going to see mainly people in their 60s, 70s and 80s,” said David Seljak, professor of religious studies at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont. He says church membership is in very rapid decline, more rapid than previously appreciated, and that also means a decline in financial and human resources.

“I think this may be the last refugee crisis in which the churches have the resources to respond on a large scale. They will respond in future, I hope they see it as part of their mission, but whether they’ll have the resources to do it is really an important question,” Prof. Seljak said.

Back in 1979, it seemed natural for the government to partner with religious institutions to help confront the Vietnamese refugee crisis. Religion played a much more important role in community life, and churches still had strong attendance and were seen as key stakeholders. The Presbyterian Church, for example, had 211,000 members in 1981. By 2011, that number had been cut roughly in half, in a country that had grown by 10 million people.

“When you look at what’s going on [with refugee resettlement], you see great faith. They’re involved, they’re committed, but they’re seniors. They won’t be there forever,” Mr. Shropshire said.

Many Christian groups, guided by the biblical principle of welcoming the stranger, have done refugee-settlement work year after year, even when refugee issues were not leading the news agenda.

Source: As resources dwindle, churches worry refugee response will slow – The Globe and Mail