Nicholas Keung The Star Tue., Jan. 17, 2023
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.”