January 26, 2015

OTTAWA – Aid groups are welcoming the federal government's Jan. 7 announcement that Canada will take in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees and 3,000 more Iraqi refugees.

But the groups hope the government will also streamline the refugee sponsorship program to make it easier and faster for churches and private charities to bring refugee families to Canada.

Canada will also contribute additional humanitarian aid of $67 million, with $40 million going to Syria.

"I think it's very good news," said Guy Desaulniers, emergency programs director for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP). "We are quite happy. I think that Canada is a good player. They did well since the beginning of the crisis in terms of humanitarian aid."

In March, the Syrian crisis enters its fourth year and the "situation is not improving at all," Desaulniers said. "It's becoming more and more difficult with the fighting among different groups and the presence of the Islamic State."

"We don't see any light or a lot of hope," he said. "The media attention is going elsewhere." People are experiencing "donor fatigue," and CCODP is noting a decrease in aid support for Syria from European countries.


"The UNHCR is calling the Syrian conflict the worst in terms of people displaced and refugees since the Second World War," Carl Hétu, national director of CNEWA Canada, said in an email from Jerusalem.

"Millions have lost everything and with no sign on ending the conflict soon, innocent families live in limbo in really bad conditions."

Hétu said he appreciated the increase in the number of refugees as well as the additional funding. "Of course, 10,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to three million refugees in the region but we do what we can with the resources we have."


Catholic dioceses in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, London, Vancouver and elsewhere have welcomed 5,000 Iraqi families, Hétu said.

"There were a lot of complaints last year that Canada did not do enough," Desaulniers said. "The response is now good."

But Desaulniers said the process of sponsoring refugees is difficult, and it takes a long time to get refugee status approved and bring refugees to Canada.

Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) executive director Joe Gunn agreed. The government needs to consult more with sponsorship agreement holders, mainly faith-based groups, to find ways to improve the process.


One major concern is the interim federal health program that had been pulled and is now the subject of a court case. Without the program, sponsors fear they might be liable for "catastrophic health problems for someone they are sponsoring," Gunn said.

The government has also been criticized by a range of faith and aid groups for cherry-picking refugees according to their religious beliefs.

"We think there should not be a particular sorting of refugees by religious affiliation; rather it should be because of need," Gunn said.