The Syrian refugee crisis has exposed a wall of bureaucratic hurdles in Canada’s renowned refugee-sponsorship system that did not exist during previous crises, when the country brought in huge airlifts of desperate people.

Migrants wanting to come to Canada as refugees now face long waits at visa offices abroad and for applications to be processed here. Refugee certification from another country or a United Nations agency is required before some kinds of applications can be reviewed.

In earlier humanitarian crises, Canada went directly to the migrants and accepted large numbers quickly. That stands in stark contrast to Thursday’s response from the federal immigration department to the death of a boy found on a beach in Turkey. A group of Canadians had applied to bring in his uncle’s family and hoped to sponsor the boy’s family next. But the family had not been certified as refugees by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, or a foreign state.

“An application for Mr. Mohammad Kurdi and his family was received by the department, but was returned as it was incomplete as it did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition,” the department said in a statement.

Canada has required such certification since October, 2012 – when the Syrian crisis was developing – for “group of five” sponsorships, a reference to the minimum number of adult Canadians needed to bring over a refugee family. But it is almost impossible to come by, said Janet Dench, head of the Canadian Council for Refugees, because the scale of the problem is so vast UN workers cannot assess people quickly.

“It’s just pitiful thinking of Canadians trying to put in an application as a group of five for a Syrian family, because you know right away it’s not going to be accepted,” Ms. Dench said.

The boy, Alan Kurdi, and his family may have been caught in a Catch-22. Tima Kurdi of Port Coquitlam, B.C., who was part of the group trying to sponsor the boy’s relatives, wrote in a letter to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander that the UNHCR would not issue the documents Canada requires without confirmation that the family had been accepted, and Canada will not confirm until it receives the UNHCR documents. “It is impossible to get the family out of Turkey,” she wrote.

Mr. Alexander said on Thursday he would meet with officials to find out the facts of the family’s case and receive an update on the migrant crisis.

Among the other bureaucratic hurdles is the fact that the waits at visa offices for Canadian officials to review applications – a review that happens after that of the UNHCR – range from 11 months in Beirut to 19 months in Amman to 45 months in Ankara, according to Canadian government figures.

And the immigration department’s central processing office in Winnipeg – which handled the application for the boy’s extended family – takes two or three months to look at applications.

Decades before the current crisis, Canada airlifted 5,000 people from Kosovo in the late 1990s, 5,000 from Uganda in 1972, and 60,000 Vietnamese in 1979-80. From January, 2014, to late last month, Canada resettled 2,374 Syrian refugees.

Mike Molloy was the Canadian government official who oversaw the airlifting of the Vietnamese boat people and removed bureaucratic obstacles. “The motto out there was not ‘do the thing right,’ it was ‘do the right thing,’” the 71-year-old, who lives in Ottawa, said in an interview.

The approach was spearheaded at first by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative government in 1979.

“The goal was initially to move 50,000 people in 18 months,” Mr. Molloy said. That became 60,000 in two years under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1980. The government offered to match all private sponsorships, galvanizing the public. It was the formal launch of a system that involved communities in guaranteeing the care, shelter and early costs of refugees. That system has since brought in more than 200,000 refugees.

In the peak month, February, 1980, Canada resettled 6,200 Vietnamese, Mr. Molloy said. Canada flew 181 charter flights during a two-year period, each carrying anywhere from 200 people to more than 400.

“When the government said, ‘Go,’ the civil servants knew we had clear instructions.” Many of the refugees were on remote islands in southeast Asia. Mr. Molloy sent over teams totalling between 20 to 25 people to process the applications. They worked fast and in rough conditions – no bathroom facilities, rats crawling over them as they slept.

“Typically, you had about 12 minutes per case. You had to figure out who they were, and make a guess about whether they were capable of landing on their feet.” A written explanation of why an applicant was expected to succeed in Canada and a description of the family composition constituted the entire visa, he said. “That’s it. There was no intermediary paperwork.” Only medical papers and a security clearance were needed before final acceptance – usually no more than eight weeks after the interview.

“When the sun went down, they would light oil lamps and they would continue until they couldn’t keep their eyes open,” Mr. Molloy said. A small team at the Anambas Islands off the coast of Malaysia interviewed families amounting to 1,200 people in four and a half days, and when they began to pack their bags, they realized thousands of people had gathered. “The refugees stood up and gave them a standing ovation.”

He said another difference from today is that the Canadians tried to keep extended families together. “If there was an old granny, she’s an asset. Brothers and sisters, bring them along. We know from experience that when refugees arrive, if their family is intact, they have a better chance of establishing more efficiently.”

Mr. Molloy said he had “fantastic” assignments in a career that included being ambassador to Jordan, but the highlight was the Vietnamese-refugee project. “We never lose with refugees. Refugees arrive with no place to go but up.”

Refugee advocates are calling on the Canadian government to adopt a similar approach – create a class of Syrian refugees that receives priority acceptance, and send a team to identify and interview them.

“They could bypass the overwhelmed UNHCR process in cases where Canadians could identify Syrian relatives,” said University of Ottawa law professor Peter Showler, who specializes in refugee law. “There would still have to be a security clearance, but that could be done by Canada.”

PDF: Statement from Tima Kurdi on Syrian refugee family members


The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Sep. 03, 2015 11:00PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Sep. 04, 2015 5:51AM EDT