As Ottawa places thousands of Syrian refugees in hotels and shelters while they hunt for permanent housing, private sponsorship groups are clamouring for families to help.
The disconnect, say critics, is a disservice to the government-assisted families cramped inside the not-so-welcoming temporary accommodation and to the eager community volunteers who have raised the money and have everything ready to receive the newcomers for a new life in Canada.
“The sponsorship group I chair has been ready since mid-December, but there had been no offers. My group is one of 18 affiliated with the Rosedale United Church. No one is getting any referrals,” said former Toronto Mayor John Sewell.
“I suspect there are three or four hundred sponsorship groups in Toronto who are ready to take families, if the government will only refer them to these groups.”
On Tuesday, two cities — Vancouver and Ottawa — said they are halting their reception of government-assisted Syrian refugees as settlement agencies there try to work through housing bottlenecks.
Syrian refugees eligible for resettlement to Canada must first be vetted by the United Nations refugee agency before being referred to Canadian officials abroad and assigned to the three different streams: fully supported by the federal government, private sponsors and the blended class with responsibilities shared between the two.
The government gets the first dip into selecting the eligible refugees recommended by its visa posts and the leftovers are then put into a pool of profiles for the selection of the 100 faith and community groups that hold refugee sponsorship agreements with Ottawa.
Local sponsorship groups that were formed after the Liberal government launched the massive Syrian resettlement plan in November, must partner with the sponsorship agreement holders.
According to Brian Dyck, chair of the Sponsorship Agreement Holders’ Association, some 300 Syrian refugee profiles have been posted since the beginning of January and they were quickly snapped up by his members.
“The matching system was designed for small-scale sponsorship interest. To adapt it to the current public interest is a big challenge,” Dyck explained.
In order to meet its target to resettle 10,000 Syrians by the end of 2015, Ottawa also slowed down its referrals to the sponsorship matching pool so officials could save time on the matching process and process the refugees under the government-assisted program.
“Starting off with a stay in temporary accommodation is routine — usually at a reception house — and the length of time may vary from a day or two, to several weeks, depending on the current local housing market,” said Immigration Refugee Citizenship Canada spokesperson Michel Cimpaye.
“We are working with settlement providers to monitor the flow of refugees into and out of temporary accommodation. This allows us to determine when capacity opens to welcome additional refugees, and to re-destine some refugees to other locations when necessary.”
The immigration department said 11,342 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since Nov. 4, including 5,932 government assisted refugees, 4,664 privately sponsored refugees and 746 others who came under the blended program. The Liberal government hopes to resettle 25,000 by the end of February.
While the privately sponsored refugees already have accommodation pre-arranged by their sponsors, the government-assisted refugees are housed in hotels and shelters for several weeks where needs assessments and referrals including housing are being done.
In Greater Toronto, 950 government-sponsored Syrian refugees are currently staying in hotels. A total of six families have moved into permanent housing while 26 others have signed their leases since the mass arrival of government assisted refugees on Dec. 27, said Mario Calla of COSTI, which runs the only government-assisted refugee reception centre in the GTA.
“The process of resettlement involves choices. We have to respect people’s choice of housing and choice of location,” said Calla. “It takes time because of the number of people involved and these people are in competition for housing against each other.”
Toronto’s Virginia Johnston, who is involved in two private sponsorship groups, said she was shocked to see government-assisted Syrian refugees stuck in a Toronto hotel while one of her groups is still struggling to find a family that needs the help.
“There are hundreds of groups that are ready to receive these newcomers. We are sitting and waiting to help while these families are in limbo in a hotel,” said Johnston, a designer with her own clothing label.
Blaine Pearson, a member of Raja Syria (which means Hope Syria in Arabic), said the Toronto sponsorship group raised enough money and found a match with a family in Lebanon in late October. However, since then, they have received no update from their partner, the Mennonite Central Committee.
“I think the Canadian government is doing an amazing job, but it could and should try to allow crowd-sourcing as a solution to expedite the process and let us come in to fill the gaps,” said Pearson, managing director of a communication and marketing company.
Alexandra Kotyk of Lifeline Syria, a Toronto-based group that recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups for Syrians, said the private sponsorship community has the capacity to help the government-assisted refugees as long as Ottawa sticks to its own 10,000 Syrian refugee target for the government-support stream.
“It has not been done before but it is possible,” said Kotyk. “We just have to think outside the box.”
Immigration Minister John McCallum said Monday the resettlement challenge is on the government's mind. One thing he said is under consideration is finding a way to get Syrians into more French-speaking communities. He said more than 90 per cent of refugees that have arrived don't speak either of the official languages, creating what he calls a blank slate for refugees and provinces to teach them either English or French.
– With files from The Canadian Press