A local immigration official is praising Saanich’s decision to call on the federal government to improve processing time for refugee applications.
“I’m obviously pleased that Saanich sees this as an important issue,” said Sabine Lehr, private sponsorship of refugees manager, for the Intercultural Association of Victoria.
Lehr was one of several voices Monday who spoke in favour of the motion from Coun. Fred Haynes. It directs Saanich staff to send letters to the office of the Prime Minister, the federal minister of immigration, and local Members of Parliament requesting that Ottawa “looks to further improve both the processing time and the numbers for both Private Sponsored and Government Assisted refugees.”
According to various sources, including Lehr, some 40,000 private sponsorship applications await processing, and the federal government announced earlier measures to improve processing times.
While Haynes acknowledged those efforts, he said more needs to be done.
“It’s always good to push on a door that is already opening for you,” he said. “It’s better than pushing on a door that is closed and will not open for you.”
Timing is crucial, he said, pointing to a petition that local MP Elizabeth May has sponsored earlier this year. It calls on the federal government among other requests to eliminate the backlog of private sponsorship applications by the end of 2018. According to Haynes, some 500 individuals have signed the petition, which remains open until July 24, 2018.
While no firm numbers are available for Saanich, the public heard Monday that some 200 private applications from the Greater Victoria region remain within the federal system.
Haynes said Saanich could have gone through other forums to voice its concerns, but would have taken too long. “The time is now for this letter,” he said.
Lehr said the question of how long it takes the federal government to process applications matters for several reasons.
First, long processing times can impose considerable burdens upon Canadian sponsors of refugees, she said. The public Monday also heard from this point from Rebecca Siebert, a former refugee herself, who currently coordinates the refugee program of Anglican Diocese of British Columbia.
“Let me tell you what happens, when somebody in Saanich says, ‘I will help my neighbour bring their relatives out of a refugee camp, or ‘yes, sign me up to volunteer to help new residents adapt to Canada.’ I begin telling them that they may be signing up for a five-year-long volunteer commitment,” she said.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, long-processing times for refugee endanger the lives of refugees themselves, either by delaying necessary medical treatment, or exposing refugees to political violence, a point the public heard from Bob Furber, who belongs to a group that wants to sponsor refugees from Sudan.
“If we think it is hard on people involved in private sponsorship, it is nothing compared to the anguish we inflict upon the families we choose to sponsor,” he said. ‘They have to live in desperate conditions, not knowing if they are doomed to live the rest of their lives in desperate conditions. Life in a refugee camp is desperate, especially for a family with children. Life in a refugee camp in Africa is worse. Life is cheap in Africa.”
Several councillors framed their letter Ottawa as an appeal to Canada’s tradition of humanitarianism.
“At this point, it has been quite a while since this situation arose, and we still haven’t made heck of a lot of progress,” said Coun. Karen Harper. “This is why it is the time to apply pressure, so that we can in fact continue to be the compassionate society that we want to be.”
According to Lehr, the federal government has committed itself to lower the processing time for private applications to 12 months year, starting January 1, 2020. Current average processing times range between 18 and 24 months.
This said, the average time it takes to process an application represents only one metric of a complex system. Other factors include the number of applicants entering the system, the share of applicants who receive a rejection or settle elsewhere, and the number of actual landings in Canada, she said.