Why some groups are quitting Canada’s popular refugee sponsorship program

Of concern, and finding the right balance on accountability:

Canada’s Syrian resettlement project spurred an outpouring of public support for refugees, but now the federal government is trying to ease growing pains that have come with the hugely popular private sponsorship program.

Since Canadians from coast to coast welcomed displaced Syrians to their communities in 2015, the number of sponsorship agreement holders or SAH — organizations authorized to resettle overseas refugees in Canada — has surged from 90 to 138 in 2022.

The annual number of refugees brought to Canada through the SAHs — and supported by local community groups — had doubled from 9,350 to 19,143 in 2019, before the COVID pandemic hampered the work. This year, 27,750 refugees are expected to come from around the world under private sponsorships.

As a result, the immigration department has recently implemented new rules to govern the work of these religious, ethnic, community or humanitarian organizations — as well as sponsorship groups that raise money and volunteer to help newcomers settle in Canada by taking them to appointments and securing housing and jobs.

While the changes are welcomed to ensure refugees’ needs are met, some sponsorship agreement holders, particularly the ones relying heavily on volunteers, say the cumbersome paperwork and mandatory audits are stretching their limited resources.

At least two groups are calling it quits, including the Anglican diocese in British Columbia. The Star has learned that as many as 10 organizations have said they’re unable to continue their work, meaning fewer refugees would be sponsored down the road.

“In the face of growing conflicts around the world, this is more important than ever. We have undertaken this work despite the steep administrative costs, because we know how important it is,” Bishop Anna Greenwood-Lee of the Diocese of British Columbia wrote in an open letter to constituents before Christmas.

“This is a difficult decision for us, and we recognize that there will be uncertainty in our community.”

She said the diocese will honour the commitment to the 290 applications still in process and cease its sponsorship program when its current agreement with the government expires.

A 2016 government review found the essential needs of resettled refugees were met but that there was a lack of monitoring of the private sponsorship program. Immigration staff were also unsure to what extent they needed to keep an eye on how the sponsorships went.

In late 2017, officials created the resettlement services assurance team to monitor whether resettled refugees were receiving the required financial and non-financial support from their sponsors, a task that was seen as having been carried out inconsistently by local offices.

Since then, a total of 821 sponsorships have been flagged for “case reviews” through external complaints and internal monitoring mechanism.

In most cases, officials say they are able to work with the sponsors to address the deficiencies in the support provided and avoid a sponsorship breakdown and/or default.

Between 2018 and last year, a total of 821 sponsorships broke down after sponsored refugees changed where they planned to live or the contention identified in the reviews could not be resolved. In 76 cases, the sponsors were found to be at fault.

As part of the new assessment regime, SAHs have to be revalidated. They must meet all eligibility criteria; demonstrate the ability to monitor their caseloads and constituent sponsorship groups; submit an extensive form detailing organizational structure and operational plans; complete mandatory sponsorship training and provide financial statements within the past 18 months.

Recognizing some organizations may need time to meet the new requirements, officials have put in a temporary exemption for missing audited financial statements. However, those groups will be put on a watch list and required to provide proof of funds and settlement plans for each sponsorship application.

According to the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association, 30 per cent of its members are completely volunteer-run organizations and another 12 per cent had only one part-time staff member. They oversee and support multiple sponsorship groups and facilitate anywhere from 10 to several hundred applications annually.

As the process is already cumbersome, some groups, especially the smaller ethnic-based organizations, are concerned the administrative burden would become too much.

“The over-professionalization of the private sponsorship program is a very real concern,” said Kaylee Perez, chair of the national association, adding that it’s working with immigration to make the assessment “less bureaucratic in nature and better aligned with the community-based, volunteer spirit of the program.”

At Mennonite Central Committee Canada, an established SAH, the new requirements would have relatively less impact because it has 14 full-time equivalent staff in five provinces and the infrastructure in place to support the program.

Still, the Mennonite group and all other SAHs have had to improve record-keeping to ensure they have all needed documents and receipts, let alone fork out as much as $10,000 for an audit by an accounting firm.

“In many sponsorships, the people who are doing the direct support tend to be family members,” said Brian Dyck, the Mennonite committee’s national resettlement co-ordinator. “You don’t keep receipts for family members. A lot of SAHs have found that they’ve had to take over the management of the finances” from constituent groups, he said.

“We’re doing a lot more than we used to. This is a program integrity exercise and that’s an important thing for me, too, but the question is, ‘Do we have the resources to do that and if we don’t, where do they come from?’”

Dyck said each file over the course of the one-year sponsorship requires an average 35 hours of staff time, from outreach to training of constituent groups, getting the forms right, collecting documentation, planning and monitoring. Existing SAHs are unlikely to be able to fill the gaps if others drop out.

Alex Hauschildt, operations director of the Anglican United Refugee Alliance, said each SAH does its best for sponsored refugees, and the new rules help ensure quality and consistent support.

“A lot of SAHs think that they don’t have the capacity to do everything that’s needed. This is what the balance of this whole thing is. You’re weighing the capacity to do good work and trying to find that balance from every lens,” said Hauschildt.

“If it is important to you, you have to find a way of doing it. If you were doing 100 so-so applications, maybe you should be doing 25 excellent applications,” he added. “There are definitely growing pains we all have to go through and figure out.”

Source: Why some groups are quitting Canada’s popular refugee sponsorship program

Refugee sponsor groups accuse Ottawa of ‘breach of agreement’ as families wait to reunite

Another example of IRCC operational difficulties? The Mennonites are one of the easiest and most reasonable groups to work with:

More than 100 groups across Canada that have formal agreements with Ottawa to privately sponsor refugees are accusing the federal government of breaching their agreements, leaving them unable to help vulnerable people.

These groups, known as Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs), are religious, humanitarian, or community organizations that assume the full financial, legal and logistical obligations related to settling refugees in Canada. They often work with smaller community groups that handle the fundraising and arrange, among other things, housing, schools, and jobs.

Every year, SAHs are each allotted a certain number of refugees — for a combined total of roughly 10,000 to 12,000 — for whom they can submit applications to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which then carries out interviews, medical check-ups, and security clearance.

The Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association (SAH Council) wrote a letter to the federal minister, Shawn Fraser, on June 20 to complain that Ottawa still hasn’t given its members their annual allotment of sponsorship spaces, which it says is “a breach of the Sponsorship Agreement.” It’s calling for the immediate release of 2022 allocations.

“SAH’s are facing a quickly diminishing window of time to submit new sponsorship applications within this calendar year,” the Council said, adding that it’s difficult to plan or confirm support to vulnerable refugee families.

“It’s frustrating,” said Mark Bigland-Pritchard, a migration and resettlement coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a faith-based agency that’s had a sponsorship agreement with Ottawa for about 40 years.

“The bulk of our allocation, we just cannot submit until the time comes that they permit us to.”

These delays endanger thousands of people who are facing persecution or living in dangerous places, he said.

Families separated, refugees at risk

Three applications that are still sitting on his desk, ready to be submitted, belong to nine-year-old Adnan Kharsa’s parents and sister. As CBC News reported in April, the Syrian boy has been separated from his family, who are in Turkey, for five years. He made it to Saskatoon with his grandmother and uncle as a privately-sponsored refugee last year.

Adnan’s aunt, Doha Kharsa, who lives in Saskatoon, formed a sponsorship group in the community and raised $40,000 to privately sponsor Adnan’s parents and sister. Then, she teamed up with MCC, as the sponsorship agreement holder, to submit their applications as part of its 2022 allotment.

Bigland-Pritchard says MCC is normally allotted about 400 spaces a year, and those numbers are usually confirmed in February. That didn’t happen this year. In May, the federal government allowed each sponsorship agreement holder in Canada to submit 25 applications.

Kharsa was disappointed to learn Ottawa hasn’t accepted more applications, including hers.

“It’s shocking,” she said. “I don’t know how to tell my mom, or even Adnan, or even my brother in Turkey about this.”

“I don’t understand why. The money is there. The applications are ready to go. So why the delay?”

In the letter to Fraser, the SAH Council said it “acknowledged the tremendous pressure IRCC currently faces in its response to multiple global crises.” It said IRCC had indicated to SAH Council that the delay is, in part, due to what it called “processing challenges” at the Resettlement Operations Centre in Ottawa.

In a statement to CBC News, IRCC did not offer an explanation for the delays.

“The Department is actively working to release the remaining 2022 allocations to SAHs,” said the statement attributed to a spokesperson for Fraser.

“We can confirm that we received a letter from the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH) Association and will be responding directly to address their concerns. We look forward to continuing our working relationship with the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders.”

2-3 year wait after application goes in

Bigland-Pritchard said it’s critical to resume steady sponsorship submissions because getting the application into the system is only the first step.

After that, the processing time for MCC’s privately-sponsored refugees is about two to three years. For example, MCC is still waiting for half of the refugees they applied for in 2019 to arrive in Canada, and most of the people they applied for in 2020 haven’t arrived.

Source: Refugee sponsor groups accuse Ottawa of ‘breach of agreement’ as families wait to reunite