Syrian Refugee Crisis: How to Help

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past months, you are already aware of the devastating effects of the civil war in Syria on its population. Syrians are fleeing en masse their country, seeking refuge where they can. Bordering states are flooded with refugees, while waves of refugees attempt to reach Europe hoping for stability and security. The Syrian refugee crisis has produced many tragedies; [1] the most well-known here is probably the story of a family who tried to reach Canada but died in the process.[2] Canada’s response to the crisis has been dismal and shameful,[3] especially considering our past responses to similar crisis (the Vietnamese one for example). The new Liberal government is under a lot of pressure to change the situation. Trudeau has already promised to welcome 25 000 Syrian refugees before the end of the year,[4] which gives me hope that the government attitudes towards the crisis will improve.

While I do believe that the responsibility of dealing humanely with the crisis lies primarily on the shoulder of the government, Canada’s unique refugee system provides some opportunity for individual, groups and corporations to help. This help takes the form of the refugee sponsorship programme.[5] The programme basically allows sponsorship agreements holders (SAH), groups of at least 5 individuals, corporations, or community groups to sponsor a refugee abroad to come to Canada. The programme allows people with sufficient resources (money and settlement support for a year unless the application is made under the BVOR class, in which the government pays for half of the financial support) to apply to Citizenship and Immigration Canada to allow a refugee and its family (defined as spouse and children under 19yo) to relocate to Canada as permanent residents (applications can be joined to ensure that families stay together, but it is not guarantee). The usual rules of the programme (such as quotas for applications and procedure) have been relaxed for Syrian refugees (and in some respect for Iraqi ones) and applications are fast tracked.[6]

So how can people help? There are two ways to help: you can sponsor a refugee, or if you are a lawyer you can provide pro bono legal assistance. Two great organisations have sprung out of this crisis: Lifeline Syrian (helping with sponsorship in Toronto) and the Refugee SSP (providing legal assistance).[7] If you are looking to sponsor someone you should consider the following:

  • Do you have a refugee in mind, if not you should contact a SAH or Lifeline Syria if you are in Toronto to see if can find a refugee to sponsor;
  • Does the refugee meet the eligibility criteria;[8]
  • What category works best for you (group of 5, corporation, SAH);[9]
  • Do you (and others involved) have sufficient financial and other resources;[10] and
  • Are you ready to dedicate the time needed to apply for sponsorship and take care of the refugees once they arrive?

The person you are seeking to sponsor must be eligible.[11] This means that the person (only the person with the strongest refugee claim is assessed for eligibility) must be outside of Canada and outside of their country of origin (Syria in this case). They must meet the definition of convention refugee (a person having well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion) and/or they have been, and continue to be, seriously and personally affected by civil war, armed conflict or massive violation of human rights in each of those countries. There must also be no reasonable alternative than coming to Canada (meaning that they cannot return to their country of origin and their current status is not permanent, thus refugees that reached Europe might fail this step). CIC currently considers Syrians as prima facie refugees, and thus the burden of proof is lesser. For Syrians, the requirements of refugee documentation (meaning that they were already found to be refugees by the UNHCR or a state) have been waved for the types of application that usually requires it. All family members must be admissible (meaning they cannot be terrorists, war criminal, etc). It is with eligibility and admissibility that lawyers can help the most (although assistance can be useful for the entire application if your city does not have organisations that can help on this front).

If you think you could help sponsor a refugee, then I highly recommend that you do it. The refugee sponsorship training programme offers a lot of information and help (http://www.rstp.ca/en/). If you live in Toronto, you should contact Lifeline Syria (http://lifelinesyria.ca/) and support their amazing work either through sponsoring or otherwise.

If you are a lawyer, then you should offer your time to the Refugee SSP (http://refugeessp.ca/home/). The SSP is a national initiative that seeks to provide free legal assistance for refugee sponsorship. They are setting up legal clinics and lawyer should contact the SSP to learn more. They also offer training for lawyers (online and in person in many cities). You do no need to know refugee to offer your assistance.

Please do what you can to help. Contact me if you need assistance with something related to sponsorship not covered in the post or associated resources. Thank you!

[1] See http://america.aljazeera.com/topics/topic/issue/syrian-refugees.html.

[2] Jessica Elgot, Family of Syrian boy washed up on beach were trying to reach Canada, 3 September 2015, The Guardian.

[3] See for example Lee Berthiaume, Canada Immigration had backlog of 7,500 Syrian refugee applications, 10 October 2015, Ottawa Citizen.

[4] Josh Dehaas, Liberals still vowing 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end, 28 October 2015, CTV News.

[5] To learn more on the programme visit http://www.rstp.ca/en/ and the CIC website http://www.cic.gc.ca/English/refugees/sponsor/index.asp.

[6] See http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/crisis/syria-iraq/sponsor.asp.

[7] http://lifelinesyria.ca/ and http://refugeessp.ca/home/.

[8] http://www.rstp.ca/en/refugees/are-you-eligible-for-private-sponsorship-to-canada/

[9] See each category’s description http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/crisis/syria-iraq/sponsor.asp (sponsoring through a SAH is the easiest, but SAHs may be overwhelmed with demands right now).

[10] http://www.rstp.ca/en/sponsorship-responsibilities/responsibilities/ and http://www.rstp.ca/en/refugee-sponsorship/groups-of-five/3-financial-requirements/

[11] Part 8, Division 1 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations, SOR/2002-227.

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