Canada is nowhere near to meeting its goal of welcoming 81,000 refugees by the end of 2021, according to numbers obtained by CBC News.
Figures provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) show the department was about halfway to its refugee intake target on Oct. 31.
As of that date, Canada had welcomed more than 7,800 government-assisted refugees, well below the federal government’s target of 12,500. Canada had accepted just 4,500 privately sponsored refugees; the intake target for privately sponsored refugees was 22,500.
IRCC also recorded more than 32,000 refugees who qualified as “protected persons” — those who request asylum after entering the country — which was substantially below its target of 45,000.
“The reality is we’re dealing with a pretty challenging situation this year,” said Immigration Minister Sean Fraser. “When you’re trying to get people into Canada at a time when the border is closed for public health reasons, there are certain challenges that are unique to a pandemic situation.”
In a media statement, the IRCC said refugees now often face tougher travel restrictions in their home countries — making it harder for them to get out — while “international partners” like the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Refugee Agency lost time to pandemic-related shutdowns.
“In this era of upheaval, we continue to live up to our dedication, reputation and obligation by continuing to help the world’s most vulnerable find refuge,” IRCC said.
The department said of the 22,770 refugees resettled in 2020, about a third were resettled in Canada.
For Bashar Jazmati — who has been waiting for permission to bring himself and his family to Canada as refugees since 2019 — the long wait has meant years of fear and uncertainty.
He escaped the everyday street violence of Syria and made it to Kuwait in 2015; his family joined him in 2017. He described what was like trying to raise a small child in the middle of a civil war in 2015 — like the daily walk with his toddler daughter that was interrupted by loud bursts of gunfire.
“It was surreal, the bullets in the neighbourhood, and I was singing [over it] to not give her consequences from the deafening sound of the bullets,” he said.
Jazmati and his family members live precarious lives in Kuwait. He has to periodically renew his work visa and said he fears that, as a non-citizen, he might lose the right to work. Key family decisions — such as whether to buy a new car or have another child — have been on hold for years, he said.
“I’m not criticizing. I’m just saying from my perspective it’s hard because you really need to have at least a secure job and know that you are staying here for two or three years,” he said.
Jazmati had his last interview with IRCC on March 1 and has heard nothing from the department since.
The family’s sponsor is Heidi Honegger in Chelsea, Que. She said her efforts to get some news about the refugee application were sent sideways by the fall election.
“I know the wheels of government turn slowly,” she said. After first hearing from the office of her local Liberal MP, Will Amos, that it was seeking information, she said, she later learned that Amos would not be seeking re-election. She said she has heard nothing from his successor, Liberal MP Sophie Chatel.
Stagnant wait lists compound problem, groups warn
Refugee advocacy groups told CBC the glacial pace of application processing lengthens wait times for applicants who are not even on wait lists yet.
“Applications have continued to be submitted over the past few years while very few refugees have arrived,” said Kaylee Perez, chair of the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association council, an umbrella group representing most of the 130 private groups that help Canadians sponsor refugee applicants.
She said the IRCC recently informed her group there are now more than 70,000 people on privately sponsored refugee wait lists — something she called a “historic backlog.”
“I think a lot of sponsorship agreement holders on the ground are doing their best to keep up with demand,” she said.
Perez said she does not think Ottawa should lower its intake targets for future years, despite the likelihood that it won’t meet its 2021 target.
“There’s a number of different things that we’re going to be looking at,” Fraser said, as his ministry expects to set new targets for 2022 shortly. “We do have to continue to modernize the system to make sure that we have the capacity to process people in a timely way.”
A ‘political’ target
“There is a political aspect to this target,” Perez said, adding intake targets communicate “a strong commitment to the resettlement of refugees at a time where many countries around the world are not accepting refugees.”
She said IRCC told her it’s expecting to revive a semi-private program to cut applicants’ resettlement fees in “early 2022.”
The blended visa office-referred program (BVOR) sees refugee applicants’ resettlement fees split between Ottawa and private sponsors for a year. Although the BVOR has been suspended during the pandemic, it still had a target of 1,000 applications for 2021.
The IRCC did not release any numbers to CBC about anybody coming into Canada under the BVOR program this year.
“Insofar as it’s an opportunity for Canadians to respond to more refugees and to find solutions for more refugees, then of course we want to see [the BVOR program] back up and running and be successful,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Both Perez and Dench are calling for better communication between the federal government and refugee applicants.
“There may be good reasons in some cases why things get moving and then stop,” Dench said, “but people don’t know and so people have just a lot of questions.
“At least if you get some sense of the reason for the wait and maybe when you can expect it to end, then it makes it that much easier to deal with.”
Jazmati said he’s clinging to hope — for himself and his family, still haunted by memories of war.
He said Honegger visited him in Kuwait in 2019. After Jazmati told her his daughter was still having nightmares about police checks back in Syria, Honegger brought the family a dream catcher.
“She was so excited by that,” Honegger recalled. “She was just like, ‘Oh I’m going to hang it up right now,’ and it was 4 p.m. in the afternoon and she goes, ‘I’m going to bed right now.'”
Jazmati said the dream catcher still hangs by his daughter’s bed today.