Benefits of Overseas Selection versus the Asylum Process

Benefits of Overseas Selection versus the Asylum Process

Part 3 on The Indo-Chinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program


Howard Adelman

The asylum process relies in the first instance on self-selection. This means that those with money and/or access to people smugglers have a distinct advantage. In taking refugees from overseas, Canada can prioritize one group of refugees over another and one sub-group of refugees over another. The grounds may be that the group is most at risk or that action is needed to wind up the resettlement of a relatively small cohort of refugees or the group that has suffered the most and has the greatest number can be advantaged, such as the Syrian refugees.

At the beginning of 2015, the Minister of Immigration, Chris Alexander, finally announced a relatively modest but what appeared at first to be at least a significant program for 3,000,000 Syrian refugees, the largest single group of refugees under UNHCR responsibility on the planet, a figure which excludes those who are internally displaced estimated to be at least twice that number. On my birthday, 7 January of this year, the announcement was widely communicated by the media that Canada had pledged to resettle 10,000 additional Syrian refugees and 3,000 Iraqi refugees. UNHCR, in light of past performance, had set a very modest target of 100,000. Canada had pledged to take its normal allotment of 10%, or 10,000 refugees. But not in one year, but over three years. Modest indeed! Not much of a birthday present I thought.

This was on top of the 1,300 Syrian refugees Canada had pledged to take the previous year but somehow seemed unable to take nearly that number. Given the scope of the crisis, the pledge at the same time of $90 million in humanitarian aid was at least responsible, but it also communicated that Canada was far more interested in warehousing rather than resettling refugees.

Further, of the 10,000, the government was only taking 1,300 per year, precisely what it had pledged for 2014. There had been no large increase. Refugee sponsorship organizations had advocated the entry of 10,000 Syrian refugees, but in a rapid resettlement program, not one spread over three years. Further, they advocated special expedited measures for those with family members already in Canada. Originally, only approximately 40% of the 10,000 were to be sponsored by the government while 60% were left for private sponsorships. Though the government subsequently backed off this ratio, this was not a form of leadership to galvanize a nation for even the government/private matching formula of 1:1 had been abandoned in favour of a 1:1 matching formula for the years 2015, 2016 and 2017 compared to 2014. The government had initially left it up to the private sector to lead any overseas intake of Syrian refugees. In contrast, Sweden, a smaller country in geographical and population terms, had already accepted 40,000 Syrian refugees and expected 80,000 asylum seekers in 2014 alone. Canada had totally abandoned its leadership role in refugee resettlement and had become a laggard.

In does not help that the UNHCR greeted Canada’s initial announcement with diplomatic obsequious pussyfooting. It was dubbed “substantial” and a “generous commitment” when it was neither. It was not “in keeping with Canada’s strong humanitarian tradition to offer resettlement to refugees worldwide.” It might be rationalized as a result of the weak response to UNHCR previous appeals. After all, it took an enormous effort to get the 30,000 in the last round, just over 1% of the Syrian refugee population. UNHCR had upped its target to 2.5% of the Syrian refugee population. Even with pledges not spread over several years, it would take 40 years to resettle all the refugees. Of course, this is somewhat of a distortion since most of the refugees will have settled in countries of first asylum like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. But the Canadian targets and pledges are so miniscule as to be embarrassing.

It does not help that the Canadian performance on the ground had even been much worse. By the end of 2014, 1,285 of the year’s pledge of 1,300 had been approved for entry into Canada and Alexander insisted that 1,100 were already here. However, only 360 of that 1,300 had been government sponsored refugees – 160 above Canada’s initial pledge of 200 – and the rest were privately sponsored refugees. The refugee sponsors were constantly complaining about the slow and dragged out process of fulfilling those private sponsorships. Alexander’s contention that 1,100 had arrived hardly seemed credible. Further, when one recalls that in the Indochinese refugee movement the government with only 16 employees in the field was transferring that same number of 1,300 per week rather than per year, one realizes how atrocious the Canadian performance has been and will likely continue to be.

The weak criticisms of Paul Dewar of the NDP and John McCallum of the Liberals were also symptoms of the times, for they welcomed the numbers and focused criticism on the ability of the government to deliver given the past record. Not quite as pusillanimous as the UNHCR, but the opposition was competing very hard for that honour. John McCallum had been caught in a trap. For he personally had proposed that Canada sponsor 10,000 Syrian refugees, the number pushed by private sponsorship organizations when the figure of 1,300 was announced. The government had used that number, but spread over three years.

There was one ray of light in the announcement. “Canada is focusing on vulnerable individuals and those facing persecution. We make no apologies for putting focus on people in need, some of whom are being persecuted based on their religious beliefs,” said Alexander. In a message sent to the media, a government spokesperson, Kevin Ménard, said that, “”Our priority is and will continue to be on those who are at risk because they are a religious minority, a sexual minority, or victims of rape.”

Why is this a ray of light? Isn’t sponsoring Christians ahead of Muslims discrimination? The LGPT community who have been one group of sponsors for Syrian refugees at risk because of sexual orientation should be delighted. But Professor Nicole LaViolette of the University of Ottawa, a research pioneering scholar on the persecution of LGBT members overseas who flee as refugees and who has advised the LGBT community about the use of private sponsorship to help their cohort in Syria, deplored the discrimination favouring using sexual orientation as a preference guide. As she wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on 11 February 2015, “Canadian LGBT communities must insist that the Conservative government respect its international obligations to provide refugee protection without discrimination. Sexual minorities know only too well the harm caused by discrimination. Queer Canadians should not support doing unto others what has long been done to us.”

This is an example of very bad reasoning. In prioritizing Syrian refugees over other groups, there is already discrimination taking place. It is one of the great virtues of overseas selection. Christians are being systematically ethnically cleansed from the Middle East. In Iraq, out of 2 million Christians in 1990, there are less than 100,000 left today. Syria under the oppressive Assad regime treated Christians fairly well, in fact, often better because they posed no danger to the regime itself. However, the war, the rise of radical Islamicism, and even in the camps, Christians have been targeted for mistreatment. The same is true of members of the LGBT community. Discrimination in favour of religious and sexual minorities at risk is well warranted.

In principle, refugee protection should indeed be granted without discrimination. However, in practice, triage is justified. There are degrees of risk and those most at risk and requiring more and better protection should be taken first. This has nothing to do with the Harper government harping on queue jumpers, for that assertion was also based on a false depiction of entry into Canada with a single queue. There are multiple routes into Canada. Self-selected refugees who arrive at entry points are not jumping any queue. They are jumping into one queue usually because the alternative queues were very inaccessible.

There is another form of discrimination that can be used to enhance the intake of refugees from abroad. Refugees selected under relaxed immigration criteria can be directed to resettle in parts of Canada that need employment. In a proposal prepared by Mike Malloy, Naomi Alboim and myself, we had urged the government to abandon its temporary workers program for unskilled workers in meat packing plants and food service in parts of Canada, where it was very hard to find employees, in favour of taking refugees instead. This advice was offered even before the temporary workers program became a national scandal. The plan entailed marrying private sector employers, who, to our surprise, responded enthusiastically to the proposal for it solved several of their problems with temporary unskilled workers – the high cost of getting an unskilled worker, the lack of benefit over the long term for the training offered, the assistance in resettlement, adaptation and training that would be available, not to count the kudos that would come their way in contrast to the criticisms over the temporary workers program.

In December of 2014, the government sent out a trial balloon that it was seriously considering using the resettlement of refugees to satisfy the needs of employers in certain areas of the country. No program has emerged that I know of to move the program in that direction. Currently, there are several routes through which the private sector can become involved with refugees.  Citizens can become involved as direct members or as members of a constituent group of an incorporated Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH). They are normally religious, ethnic or humanitarian organizations. Among the almost 100 SAHs, a small minority of them, handle the vast bulk of refugee sponsorships in contrast to the 1979-80 period when a significant percentage of refugees were sponsored by groups of five or more individuals (G5) who came together to help refugees resettle in Canada.

A third route is through Community Sponsorship located in the area where the refugee was to be settled. Molloy, Alboim and I had proposed a fourth route using a partnership between: a) a Community Group to provide the human resources for the resettlement of the refugees; b) a SAH because of its experience in handling the paperwork, c) small groups of citizens in the area to be assigned to a particular family of a small cluster of refugees, and, most importantly, d) a business prepared to offer the refugee a job, presumably to offset the need for temporary unskilled workers. This would have the advantage of overcoming the huge barrier of costs (estimated currently at $25,000 per sponsorship) while providing the business with a human support group for the refugees. An argument has been made that Syrian refugees have suffered so much that they will need a longer period of support before they are ready to assume a job. I, personally, remain to be convinced, especially if these refugees are taken in above the 10,000 target over the next three years and can be selected on the basis of their employability.

Private sponsors spend less per refugee on resettlement than the government. Part of this is because of in-kind donations and use of volunteers. But part of the explanation is that the government provides wider access to government services, which, if offered on an equal basis for all refugees, would assist and encourage private sponsors enormously. Evidence even at the time of the Indochinese refugee movement showed that if the time between making the refugee offer and the time of receiving the refugees is too great – three months was considered appropriate and over six months too long – then interest in private sponsorship fell off precipitously. Delays currently are much more than a year and the only reason we still have the PSR program currently is that the SAH’s are used overwhelmingly as vehicles for family reunification. This is also why the administrative costs of private sponsorship are so much higher than sponsorship of GARs because specific individuals have to be located and refugees are not being processed on an assembly line basis.

A study commissioned by the government concluded that PSRs earned more than GSRs after three years. Since the question was not asked, but what was concluded at the time of the Indochinese Refugee Movement using comparative research, was that PSRs had any more Canadian-born friends and far better networks to link to employment opportunities as well as facilitate integration. The reality is that the private sponsorship program that reached its heyday at the time of the Indochinese Refugee Movement has been allowed to die and has been replaced de facto by a family reunification program. This is the real bias in the current program. What was the program like “back then” and what made that moment unique and distinctly different from today?


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