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There is a rich history of communities across Canada working together to raise funds to sponsor refugees who come to our country. Local groups with humanitarian goals are focused on ensuring a brighter future for people forced to flee their homelands. However, groups in Quebec are facing challenges not experienced elsewhere in Canada.

Sponsoring refugees changes lives and enriches our society. The arrival of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the late 1970s was a notable point in our history, as was the more recent arrival of Syrians, about a decade ago. Both times, Quebec played an important role in these initiatives.

Perhaps less well-known is that more than 400,000 people have immigrated to Canada through refugee sponsorship. Sponsorship allows Canadians to respond to humanitarian crises and express solidarity. Today, groups support Afghans, Iraqis, Congolese and Eritreans. They also support other refugees, including LGBTQ individuals whose rights are not protected in their home countries.

The program relies on citizens who form sponsorship groups and provide financial aid and integration support for a refugee’s first year in Canada. Groups choose who they will help. Often, the refugee is a friend or relative of a group member. In all but Quebec, the program is administered solely by the federal government.

Many immigration policies in Quebec are distinct from the rest of Canada as the federal government allows the province more control over its affairs. Since the late 1990s, Quebec’s government has controlled aspects of refugee sponsorship. Four key differences show how Quebec’s program is threatened by its own government.

Reduced and insufficient landing targets

Quebec has drastically reduced the number of sponsored refugees allowed in the province. As part of its annual immigration target, the government has cut the figures this year to between 1,850 and 2,100 from a maximum of 4,400 six years ago.

Once targets are set, both levels of government must work to reach them, but Quebec has consistently failed in recent years to hold up its end, as figure 1 shows.

Travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic dampened numbers in 2020 and 2021. But the following year, as the world began to emerge from restrictions, 2,010 sponsored refugees arrived out of a target of 2,750 to 3000. In 2023, the same goal was set, but only 1,190 arrived. This is in stark contrast to the over 4,000 sponsored refugees who arrived in Quebec each year from 2016 to 2018.

Quebec’s lower targets and inability to meet them contrast with the rest of the country, where targets have increased and have been met. Some 22,517 sponsored refugees arrived in Canada in 2022 and 27,655 in 2023. Quebec has the lowest rate of resettlement of all provinces.

Lengthy processing times

Finalizing fewer applications causes wait times to increase. News reports a year ago revealed the Quebec government had shelved applications from Afghan refugees while Ottawa prioritized those requests. As reported in Le Devoir, an application submitted by a Toronto group saw an Afghan family arrive within six months. But a Montreal group was still waiting a year later for Quebec to assess an application made at the same time.

Quebec Immigration Minister Christine Fréchette promised that all applications would be processed and sent to the federal government by the end of 2023, yet many organizations have not received any response on requests  submitted as far back as 2022, even as advocates for refugee sponsorship made clear calls for improvement.

Lengthy wait times leave refugees overseas in perilous situations. Afghan families who fled to countries such as Pakistan or Tajikistan to escape the Taliban often need to pay bribes to extend their immigration status or find housing. Some develop health concerns. Sponsor groups end up sending money abroad to help refugees, who can do little more than wait.

Lack of consultation and collaboration

Sponsored refugees receive permanent residence status upon arrival in Canada and their sponsors help them adjust to their new country. Governments and sponsorship groups need to work together for this approach to succeed.

The federal government makes significant efforts to collaborate with sponsorship groups. It funds training and supports co-ordination efforts by experienced sponsorship organizations, including regular meetings. This ensures clear communication and good program management.

The Quebec government provides some funding to employ a resource person for refugee sponsorship, but there is minimal interaction between organizations and government officials. Sponsor groups are left in the dark when policy changes are introduced.

Roadblocks for experienced organizations

Both federally and in Quebec, there are three types of sponsorship. First, small groups of individuals can step forward on an ad hoc basis in the group of five program at the federal level and the group of 2 to 5 program in Quebec. Second, community organizations can apply through specific programs in both jurisdictions. Third, large bodies with significant experience in sponsorship work with local groups or co-sponsors to help refugees once they arrive. These are known as sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs) in all but Quebec where they are called “experienced organizations.”

The larger, established organizations provide expertise to refugee sponsors and ensure consistent outcomes. At the federal level, most applications are supported by SAHs. In contrast, the Quebec government appears to prefer working with ad hoc groups. Over half the spots available for sponsorship applications in the province are reserved for them.

The Quebec government uses a lottery to select a limited number of applications. This is not the case under the federal program, although intake controls are under consideration. Refugee sponsorship advocates in Quebec have decried the lottery system.

Requirements for financial support vary depending on the type of sponsorship organization. All groups whose applications move forward must have enough money to support the refugees they sponsor. At the federal level, sponsors are encouraged to raise funds and keep them in a trust account. In Quebec, ad hoc sponsors are assessed on the income of the two to five members in the group. A recent policy change in Quebec targets experienced sponsors and weakens program oversight.

Quebec recently notified organizations that keeping funds in trust is forbidden after investigating suspected cases of fraud. This has left sponsorship groups exasperated and uncertain how to manage. There was no discussion between the government and the sponsorship community on this new policy. Long-standing organizations have indicated they are uncertain if they can continue their work.

Prohibiting groups from keeping trust funds goes against the best practices for refugee sponsorship. These accounts ensure sponsors can provide for the needs of refugees once they arrive. Quebec’s approach of banning trusts and preferring ad hoc groups leaves no way to ensure compliance or good management of sponsorships.

Quebec must change course

Refugee sponsorship has long been a part of Canada’s identity. If Quebec wants to ensure sponsorship remains viable and that humanitarian objectives are respected it needs to reform its program. Many individuals and groups in the province are willing to sponsor refugees, but are disheartened by the roadblocks resulting from the government’s approach.

Targets must be raised, processing times must decrease, more collaboration is needed and sponsor groups should be encouraged to hold funds in trust to ensure a good welcome for newcomers. These changes would also support citizens who are eager to help refugees start a new life in Quebec.

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Ian Van Haren
Ian Van Haren is a PhD candidate in sociology at McGill University and was previously the executive director of Action Réfugiés Montréal and member of the co-ordination committee for the Regroupement des organismes et groupes de parrainage des réfugiés au Québec (ROGPRAQ).
Sandra Colon
Sandra Colon is the sponsorship program co-ordinator (pre-arrival focus) at Action Réfugiés Montréal and a member of the working group on overseas protection and resettlement at the Canadian Council for Refugees.

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