Education Minister Doug Graham says the Yukon government will likely match donations raised by a local group in an effort to bring at least one family of Syrian refugees to the territory.
Graham attended a crowded community meeting on Monday night led by Raquel de Queiroz, who is currently fundraising and looking for sponsors willing to support Syrians fleeing civil war in their home country.
De Queiroz’s campaign has so far raised just over $6,000. She is hoping to raise $27,000 to help a refugee family build a new life in the Yukon.
“I think if they do some fundraising and they raise another $10,000 or so, that we’d probably match that money to make sure that they had sufficient money to bring in at least one family immediately,” Graham told the News.
But there’s one problem – currently, there are no Syrian families available for de Queiroz and other sponsors to host.
De Queiroz has applied to sponsor refugees through the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program, created in 2013 to match refugees identified by the United Nations Refugee Agency with private sponsors in Canada.
Under this program, the federal government provides up to six months of income support, with the private sponsors responsible for another six months of financial support, as well as social and emotional support throughout the first year.
Private sponsors partner with a sponsorship agreement holder – in de Queiroz’s case, the Archdiocese of Vancouver – that guarantees support for the refugees if the sponsors are unable to fulfill their commitment.
But Canada has been slow to approve Syrian refugees through the Blended Visa program. In fact, between January 2014 and the end of August 2015, the program was responsible for just over one per cent of the 2,374 Syrians resettled in Canada – about 29 people.
Currently, all of the Syrian refugee families that have been approved through the Blended Visa program have already been spoken for.
Still, de Queiroz said the Blended Visa program is her best option. Fully private sponsorships are difficult to process for those without a personal connection to a particular family they want to help. Her group would also have needed to raise the full $27,000 before being eligible to sponsor a family. Through the Blended Visa program, she said, a Syrian family could be here in as little as one month, and she could continue to fundraise with the family already living here.
But at the moment, delays in approving refugees have thrown a wrench in her plans.
“The reality is that our government is not working fast enough on those applications,” she said. “As much as there is will here, there is a real bottleneck holding them there.”
De Queiroz said she, the donors, and the other potential sponsors must now decide whether to take in a refugee family from a country other than Syria, or wait for more Syrian families to be approved.
In the meantime, she is urging the Yukon government to pressure the federal government to put more resources into accepting applications from refugees already identified by the United Nations Refugee Agency.
“They can and they should do more right now, because without political will, no visas are signed,” she said. “So now is the time that they need to be really putting the pressure on the federal government. We can have everything ready here, the money and the paperwork, but we can’t sign those visas.”
Graham said he would contact the federal government about processing more applications as soon as he has “some assurance that there are families in Whitehorse that are committed.”
Provincial and territorial governments cannot independently sponsor refugees. But they can provide financial support to sponsors and organizations that help refugees resettle in Canada.
Ontario recently pledged $10.5 million to help bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the province in the next two years. British Columbia has committed $1 million to help refugees settle there.
Last week, the Yukon’s territorial parties jointly announced a $25,000 donation to the Canadian Red Cross to help Syrian refugees overseas.
But Graham said he’s not aware of any other territorial initiative to fund the resettlement of refugees in the Yukon.
He also cautioned that the Yukon must be careful when accepting refugees, since seniors and those with illnesses requiring specialized treatment could be very costly.
“Because we’re so small, one serious disease or person that can’t look after themselves is quite a burden financially to the taxpayers of the territory,” he said.
But Michael Dougherty, co-chair of the social justice committee at Whitehorse’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, said the Yukon has successfully resettled refugees in the past, including Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.
He said one refugee family came to the Yukon from Kosovo in the 1990s, and both parents had jobs and were fully independent within a couple of months. “We have capacity,” he said. “I don’t think there are any financial reasons why we should bat an eye.”
NDP Opposition Leader Liz Hanson, who also attended Monday’s meeting, said the Yukon doesn’t have the same infrastructure for resettling refugees that some of the provinces do.
But she said the government could provide financial support through local non-governmental organizations that deal with trauma, among other things.
She said she was pleased by the size of the crowd at Monday’s meeting, which numbered between 70 and 100 people.
“I was really impressed by the number of people who showed up,” she said. “It’s a really good start.”
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