Threats, intimidation, assassinations and massacres have forced about 3.5 million Colombians to flee their homes and relocate to other areas in the country - writes Gladys Terichow of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the North American peace church relief and development organisation.
Many end up in Bogota where Mennonite churches and their agencies, in partnership with MCC, help families find temporary accommodations and provide other emergency assistance, said Ed Wiebe, coordinator of the national refugee programme for MCC Canada.
For some families, settling in Canada under the country‚Äôs private refugee sponsorship programme is the only answer, he added.
Although their lives are in danger and private sponsors in Canada are waiting for their arrival, most applicants face unacceptably long processing delays, with waits of two years being routine.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs the big thing right now‚Äîthe processing time is too long,‚Äù said Wiebe, noting new applications are placed at the bottom of a list. Worldwide, the backlog of all private sponsorships now exceeds 14,000 applicants wanting to come to Canada.
The most immediate concern, he said, is to clear the backlog but steps must also be taken to include provisions in the private sponsorship programme that allow for cases to be prioritized. ‚ÄúWithout prioritization it is simply not refugee protection,‚Äù commented Wiebe.
In a presentation to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration earlier this month, MCC's Wiebe said that he hoped the Canadian government would make the backlog of refugee sponsorship cases an immediate priority.
He also recommended the government develop additional partnership agreements that recognize the strengths and experiences of churches, church agencies and other sponsoring groups who want to help protect refugees through resettlement to Canada.
Mennonite Central Committee Canada, he said, is prepared to find more resources to respond to the desperate situation of refugees and internally displaced people in Colombia and in other countries. One example is the recent placement of a MCC service worker in Bogota to assist Mennonite churches and organizations in Colombia with identifying and prioritizing applications that are submitted to the Canadian embassy for private sponsorship.
‚ÄúHowever, any of our efforts are going to fail if visa offices continue to be inadequately resourced, if long processing times are not addressed,‚Äù he said in his presentation. ‚ÄúHow can increasing our work and resources overseas be successful in protecting more refugees when processing times are measured in years?‚Äù
Each year, the Canadian government resettles approximately 7,500 refugees through government programs and an additional 3,500 through the private sponsorships. Canada, he said, does not place a limit on the number of private sponsorships but the backlog is a clear indication that the number of applications finalized each year does not match the number of applications that have been submitted.
‚ÄúThis is not the fault of the visa officers‚Äîthere just aren‚Äôt enough of them out there,‚Äù explained Wiebe, noting in addition to processing applications for refugees the officers also process visas for immigrants, students, workers, visitors and business applicants.
Each file in the backlog of 14,000 applications represents a financial commitment of 10,000 to 30,000 Canadian dollars borne by the sponsoring group and an additional commitment to support the refugees for up to a year when they arrive in Canada. This investment of time, energy and money by ordinary Canadians needs to be encouraged and facilitated, said Wiebe.
Wiebe would also like to see the government reinstate a family reunification program. In the early 1990s the government cancelled the Assisted Relative Class, a program that made it possible for Canadians, especially new Canadians, to sponsor relatives who do not meet the criteria of other immigration programs or sponsorship programmes.
‚ÄúRefugees who settle here have relatives back home but Canada has no mechanism in place to help families sponsor relatives that don‚Äôt meet Canada‚Äôs tight refugee criteria,‚Äù explained Wiebe.
Mennonite churches in Canada, through MCC, have helped more than 50,000 refugees resettle in Canada under the private sponsorship program that was started in 1979.