I'm Ed Wiebe, and I'm with the Mennonite Central Committee in Winnipeg.
Mennonite Central Committee Canada has been a sponsorship agreement holder—or SAH, as we call them—continuously since the inception of the program in 1979. We operate the program out of five provincial offices that connect with more than 600 rural and urban congregations throughout Canada. We estimate that about half of those have been engaged with this program at one time or another.
There continues to be good support for and good interest in the program. However, given the many other opportunities that groups and individuals have to participate voluntarily in other things, and given the challenges in the program currently, we cannot assume that private sponsorship will retain its prominence if it does not very soon start to also show its relevance and responsiveness again.
Canada's private sponsorship program started with a designated class group out of Southeast Asia in the late 1970s. It was the so-called boat people crisis at the time. I don't think anyone at that time imagined how long and how successful this program would become, resettling literally tens of thousands of additional privately sponsored refugees to Canada.
Those were the golden years, but that first group was also an exception. They were accepted en masse. Although exceptions continue today, the program deals mostly with refugee populations where the merits of each individual's case must be assessed.
For the local sponsorship groups that raise the money and settle the refugees in their communities, this shift in complexity is not really important. It's not something they spend a lot of time on. They just want to make a difference in someone's life in a measurable, effective, and hands-on way, but due to current frustrations with years of waiting and numerous case rejections, they are becoming frustrated, rapidly losing faith that this is still a responsive and effective mechanism. We are seeing much smaller arrival numbers, while the upfront costs that we incur and the effort that is put in to produce those results have escalated exponentially.
One of our concerns as a sponsorship agreement holder is our own lack of direct contact with refugees at the source, with the environment they live in, and with the groups directly working with them out there. While we hear compelling third-party voices advocating on behalf of situations and individuals here, we are concerned about the cries abroad that are muted by distance and other barriers.
Last spring, I and six of my colleagues from Canada and two based in Africa spent several weeks exploring refugee protection issues in Kenya and South Africa, including many NGO visits, visits with UNHCR hubs and branch offices, and also visits with the respective Canadian high commissions in each of those countries. Something that stands out was a comment we heard several times from NGOs involved in resettlement. They noted how difficult it must be for Canadian SAHs to assess refugee cases exclusively from within Canada when they find it incredibly difficult to do that right at the source.
That echoed what our MCC staff heard or did in Thailand. They used to say to us during the Southeast Asia years that it was difficult for them as well. They were working in identification and assessment of cases and other humanitarian assistance at the time. They helped us assess cases, and they also gave us valuable insights and reports into specific issues, trends, and biases they were seeing on the ground. Such a more integrated assessment approach greatly aided our ability at that time to sponsor those most vulnerable, but, as noted, that was also a designated class movement.
When we then started to work with Central American refugees who were assessed against the full refugee definition, for the first time on a large scale we were also faced with having to assess based on the credibility of the individual claim as well. It was at that time that sponsorship agreement holders entered into a new era.
As both a relief and development NGO and an SAH, MCC feels it is important for us to focus more energy on field-based assessment. We are confident that we are now doing a vigilant and effective job on our in-Canada role, and that is something we will be vigilant about and continuing.
Staff training and competence have been greatly increased, and we acknowledge the support and training provided by the refugee sponsorship training program, which CIC funds. It aids our own efforts in being competent, yet our acceptance rate is still only around 50%. CIC has cited this as a major reason for the current program problems. We should remember, though, that such statistics are based on cases submitted between 30 and 40 months ago. I can't imagine a school pointing to a poor test result of a student in grade five who is currently acing grade eight.
We would also like to draw your attention to the fact that Canada accepts only about 80% of cases referred by the UNHCR, which has extensive field operations to do refugee status determination. So even if we use our 40-month-old rejection rate, UNHCR achieves only a 30% better rate—and I would remind you of the millions of dollars they spend in doing those determinations.
Currently, MCC is exploring what it would take for us to move back into more overseas case identification and referral. We are just starting an informal pilot approach in one refugee-producing region, but entering into this on a larger scale would require significantly increased internal commitment and resources. Identification and referral overseas would, though, allow us to better address the full needs of the refugee populations in regions where we may have some capacity to make a difference. However, any of our efforts are going to fail if visa offices continue to be inadequately resourced, if long processing times are not addressed, and if the prevailing negative attitude toward private sponsorship continues in Canada's missions abroad and within CIC itself.
How can we increase our work and resources overseas successfully in protecting more refugees when processing times are measured in years? Does our plan make any sense when new cases will be placed into the back end of the current long backlog? We would be wasting any newly developed resources and capacity overseas in ways that our board and supporting sponsoring groups would not accept. We need a commitment from this committee to make the backlog issue and the clearance of backlogs a priority.
We would also encourage government to look at ways in which it might support NGOs in broader new approaches—for example, looking at the models of Canadian cooperation like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which is an excellent example of cooperation. I'm sure there are other types of program delivery overseas that could be explored.
It was also quite noteworthy on our Africa tour how genuinely UNHCR and others invited more dialogue on partnerships. It wasn't merely a pitch for money either.
As one last point before our conclusion, we recognize also that not all SAHs have the capacity to adopt or have an interest in adopting approaches overseas and so on. Therefore, we may need to look at different types of sponsorship agreements that would be appropriate for the capacities of different SAHs.
In summary, what I've been talking about and asking for is, first, making the backlog of private sponsorship cases an immediate priority; secondly, exploring and developing new types of overseas partnerships that recognize and support SAHs that have capacity and interest to explore those; and lastly, considering different sponsorship agreement models, building on the international capacity that some SAHs could bring to this program.
Thanks for your attention.