Minutes of Refugee Sponsorship Group meeting Wednesday March 30, 2016
St. Stephen’s-in-the-field Church
Bellevue and College Streets, Toronto.
About 300 people were in attendance – the place was quite crowded, with a number of people standing. The meeting was chaired by John Sewell.
1. Virtually everyone present identified themselves as members of sponsorship groups. About 15 people indicated that their family had arrived. About one third indicated they were part of a group which had been assigned a family which has not arrived. Another third indicated they were part of a group that had finished the application process but had been assigned a family.
2. John Sewell explained the new government policy as he understood it from the United Church (the Sponsorship Agreement Holder that his sponsorship group had applied under) and the reporting letter of the Association of SAHs.
a) The government has released all re-assigned and temporary staff processing Syrian refugees and closed processing centres in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This means we are back to a system where it takes months to process and register a family through regular visa offices.
b) The government has released re-assigned and temporary staff in the Winnipeg processing centre and no longer prioritizes Syrian families. Processing times used to be 10 days; now we are back to a three month processing time for a family.
c) The government has cancelled charter flights for Syrian refugees. Now a family must arrange and pay for (in fact the sponsorship group pays) its own flight, and that is not easy.
d) There will no longer be a special priority for Syrians: they will be treated like other refugees, which means a long wait.
e) With these changes in processing, it hardly matters whether you were a sponsorship group or Group of 5; not many Syrians refugees are going to be coming here any time soon.
As of the end of February, some 25,000 Syrian refugees had arrived; 16,000 were GARs, government assisted refugees, staying ion hotels for some weeks, and 9000 for sponsorship groups.
3. The meeting then turned to discussing the policies we want the government to adopt. The meeting broke into smaller groups of five or six to talk about possibilities, and after six or seven minutes they reported back and there was general discussion. The following ideas were suggested:
a) The government should give adequate notice of any changes in refugee policy, rather than catching people by surprise.
b) Sponsorship groups should be permitted and encouraged to take GARs families from the hotels. (A woman from Syria said the Syrian community would prefer more Syrian refugees rather than converting GARS, who are already here, to sponsorship families.)
c) The government should restore staffing capacity so it can quickly process Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Winnipeg.
d) Refugee families which have already been identified to sponsorship groups should be moved to the front of the line, given the expectations of both the refugee family and the sponsorship group.
e) Given the crisis in Syria, no limits (or caps) to the number of Syrian refugees should be established.
f) All sponsorship groups which have applied by the end of April should be allotted a family, and the government should undertake that the family will arrive within three months, that is, no late than the end of July.
g) It is recognized that refugees from other countries should not be prejudiced by Syrian refugees.
h) The government should restore paying for air fare.
In reviewing these proposals, the meeting generally agreed that the two most important policy changes needed are:
I) The government should restore staffing capacity so it can quickly process Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Winnipeg.
II) All sponsorship groups which have applied by the end of April should be allotted a family, and the government should undertake that the family will arrive within three months, that is, no later than the end of July.
4. Arif Virani, MP from a riding in west Toronto, and Parliamentary Secretary of John McCallum, the Minister of Immigration Refugees and Citizenship, was present and the meeting asked that he speak. He said the reality of the situation that the government had a serious staffing and resource problem – processing the Syrian refugees took all kinds of re-assignments – and the government hopes to fix this later this year so that 55,000 refugees can be processed this year, a substantial increase from the past. He said there was a limit placed on the number of Syrian refugees, namely 10,000 more by the end of the year. He also said that the government was agreeing that it would accept sponsorship applications until midnight on March 31st, which he said was an extension forth previous deadline of February 29. He said the maters were all outlined in an email that the minister had just sent. (In fact, the letter was made public on March 31.)
It is safe to say that few felt that what he said addressed any of the major issues which had brought people to this meeting, issues set out in the priorities which had been expressed here.
5. It was suggested that letters should be written right now, at this meeting, to Mr. McCallum, copy to Prime Minister Trudeau, on the understanding that a large block of individuals letters is more powerful than individual letters sent to ministers. Some suggested that emails would be just as effective, but some said that politicians rarely are influenced by emails.
In any case, time was taken for people to write one page letters: 95 such letters were given to John Sewell who undertook to copy same, and immediately send the originals to Mr. McCallum and a copy to Prime Minister Trudeau.
For those thinking emails are the way to proceed, John McCallum’s contact is firstname.lastname@example.org
6. It was also noted that Mr. McCallum is coming to speak in Toronto to the C.D. Howe Institute on Tuesday April 5, 12 noon, 67 Yonge Street, just south of King Street. It was agreed we would gather at 11.30 am on the sidewalk to greet him and in a friendly way to encourage him to change policies as we have suggested. We should make friendly signs, such as `We love our refugees and want more of them!’ or `Keep up the good work with refugees, don’t change course’.
7. Virginia Johnson talked briefly about the work the Welcome Project (welcomeproject.ca) is doing to assist Syrian families in hotels – that is, GARs or government assisted refugees. She is putting together teams of five to help GAR families – finding housing, moving, settling, registering, etc. This is not the same as being responsible for a family for a year, but instead helping out for a period of six or eight weeks. Those who have some time – waiting as we are for our families to arrive – might wish to help out in the interim, and they should contact Virginia, email@example.com .
8. We agreed we would meet again in two weeks, location to be determined. We should ask John McCallum to attend at this meeting and address our requests.
9. John Sewell asked for names of those wishing to be part of a steering committee for our initiative, and indicated where those interested could sign up.
8. The meeting adjourned at 8.30, but many continued to talk together for the best part of half an hour.