11/15/2015 11:53 EST | Updated 11/15/2016 05:12 EST

Canada's Syrian Refugee Target Could Delay Non-Syrian Applicants, Advocates Worry

While the new Liberal government pursues an ambitious target of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees over the next two months, a similar number of non-Syrian refugees are already in the queue to come to Canada through private sponsorship.

On Saturday, a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office told reporters that Friday night's attacks in Paris have not prompted Canada to back down from its promise to accept the Syrian refugees, saying the government will ensure refugees brought to Canada will be chosen in a "safe and responsible" manner to deal with possible security threats.

Many people involved in helping refugees are concerned the recent focus on Syrians will further delay the applications of non-Syrians trying to come to Canada. 

Tom Denton, executive director of the Hospitality House Refugee Ministry in Winnipeg, says with the  government prioritizing 25,000 Syrian refugees, "Something has to give."

And the Canadian Council for Refugees sent a letter to John McCallum, the new minister of immigration, urging the government not to forget refugees in other parts of the world.

In a statement to CBC News, McCallum says that while "All Syrian resettlement applications and sponsorships are being processed on a priority basis... Other refugee populations continue to be processed as per usual and existing commitments and admission targets will be met."

That could be a challenge, says Denton. "The system worldwide was already taxed in terms of the processing of immigration applications, not just refugees."

The 25,000 Syrian refugees would be roughly 80 times the number of government-assisted Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada in 2015 before Justin Trudeau became prime minister.

john mccallum syria

(Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Overburdened and overwhelmed

Denton explains that the same offices and staff abroad handle all the various immigrant application streams and are already overburdened with work and overwhelmed with applications. Canada takes in about a quarter-million immigrants each year.

Hospitality House Refugee Ministry is Canada's largest private sponsor of refugees, and Denton, who is 81, may have more experience working on refugee sponsorship than anyone in Canada.

The backlog problem and the workload had reached the point where Hospitality House didn't do any new cases last year, but still added 224 refugees to the mix, as applicants got married and had children. One of their typical cases takes four to five years.

Even before the new government took office, the Syrian situation was affecting the whole immigration system, Denton says, including the timetable for processing applicants from elsewhere. And before Syria, "the delay was already there," he adds.

Denton says his organization has heard from Citizenship and Immigration Canada's Central Processing Office in Winnipeg (CPOW) that they are currently giving priority to Syrian applications, followed by Iraqi applications, then to the others.

Denton says they have been routinely filing the related documentation on dependents with CPOW and if they're from elsewhere, Hospitality House is "now getting messages saying, 'Unless this is an urgent matter, we will have to defer this for the moment.'"

He says that was inevitable, given how busy the immigration system is, adding that it will take CIC a while to increase staffing to process more applications, if they do.

Vigils Across Canada In Light Of Paris Attacks

Huge backlog

Canada resettles about 5,000 privately sponsored refugees each year, but given the number of applications, even with a high refusal rate, Canada has over a three-year inventory, Denton calculates.

"The only answer is to increase the capacity in the system," Denton says.

He adds that "refugees should not be considered as just another part of the immigration pie. They should be considered as separate and distinct because they're in urgent circumstances."

In his statement, McCallum said, "Canada has already sent additional immigration officers to process cases" in the countries neighbouring Syria.

Janet Dench, who leads the Canadian Council for Refugees, hopes that means the government will "bring in extra resources rather than diverting the meagre resources that are in other parts of the world."

To handle the Syrian applications, Citizenship and Immigration Canada could ask their visa offices to send someone to the crisis area for some months, or redirect staff to the Middle East that they had planned to send abroad on temporary assignments in other visa offices, Dench says.

CIC also could bring back retired visa officers. Given the training and experience the job requires, their options are limited.

It's possible that two months from now, the government could maintain the capacity it adds for handling the 25,000 Syrian refugee applications to get through any new backlog and the existing one.

But Dench wants to see if the Liberal government has a long-term commitment on refugees.

"They could do something dramatic [now], then rest on their laurels," she says.

Private sponsors' role

While Syrians ranked sixth last year for the number of government-assisted refugees arriving in Canada, they ranked second for private sponsorship, behind Eritreans.

Trudeau's 25,000-refugee commitment refers to government-assisted refugees only. It's unclear whether that includes refugees resettled under a new program where the government covers the refugees' costs for their first six months and private sponsors cover the costs for the next six months.

(Whether government-assisted or privately sponsored, the refugees' expenses for their first year in Canada are covered, or less, if they become self-sufficient.)

Some groups are stepping up and sponsoring Syrian and Iraqi refugees under that new joint program, which is officially called the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program (BVOR).

A refugee sponsoring group at St. James Anglican Church in Manotick, Ont., which is south of Ottawa, expected a family from Burma would arrive in Canada this year. The family, Karen people from southern Burma, have been living in a refugee camp across the border in Thailand for 18 years. The Manotick group began their sponsorship process in early 2013.

After 14 fundraisers, they have collected $35,000 toward the sponsorship.

But the latest communication from the government suggests it could take another three years before the parishioners welcome the family to Canada. The delay means the group will need to raise more money.

In the spring, the same group also applied to sponsor an Iraqi family under the joint program. Less than a month later, they welcomed that family of four at the Ottawa airport.

trudeau isis airstrikes isil

(Photo: AP)

Remarkable response

Joan Bowler, the volunteer coordinator of the Manotick refugee program, says at the time, there were no Syrians on the BVOR list.

There's now a preponderance of Syrians on those lists. Tom Denton says the response from Canadians has been remarkable, those refugees are getting snapped up, with groups "scrambling" to act as their sponsors.

Because the listed refugees have already been selected, for the most part, they get here quickly.

While Bowler says they are grateful for the timely arrival of the Iraqi family, "It seems unfair because our Karen family has waited 20 years to be sponsored." Bowler says that by the time they get to Canada, three of their four kids will no longer be children.

Denton says this exemplifies the problem for many groups wanting to sponsor refugees.

"It's very difficult for church groups who become enthusiastic about doing a sponsorship and then having to wait and wait and wait."

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