Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for this opportunity to come before you today to talk about our part in the efforts to respond to the Syrian crisis. Canada's private sponsorship of the refugees program has been an important part of Canada's humanitarian immigration program, and it's important to understand how it fits with the current context of refugee resettlement in Canada.
The Mennonite Central Committee was the first non-governmental organization to sign a sponsorship agreement, in March 1979. We have continued to be a part of refugee resettlement work with Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in Canada, as well as other partners over the years, to bring tens of thousands of refugees to Canada. We've also been involved in relief, development, and peace-building around the world.
We are currently involved in the largest operation in our 96-year history. Between donations from our sponsors and grants from the Canadian government, which we are very grateful for, and others, we have spent $35 million U.S. on programming for supporting displaced people in the Middle East, with about half of that money going to support displaced people still in Syria.
Resettlement of Syrians and Iraqis is something we started looking at promoting in a bigger way at the beginning of last year, in 2015. We developed plans to raise awareness about resettlement and the role it could play. Then, in September, when the picture of Alan Kurdi hit social media, we set aside our awareness campaign and started answering the many phone calls and emails coming into our offices.
Our response as a sponsorship agreement holder, SAH, has taken three basic forms.
First, we and other SAHs have often been the first place that people turn to for information about refugees and about refugee situations in general. Our staff in the provinces we work in, from British Columbia to Ontario, went out to countless information nights that had crowds of a size we'd never seen before. People wanted to know more. They wanted to know how to get involved.
Second, once groups were formed, we walked with them through the settlement commitments they were making, helping them match up with often the blended visa office referred profiles that were coming out from the government. In other cases, we worked with people in Canada who had family members who were refugees in the more complicated process of filling out the sponsorship application forms and filing them with the Canadian government.
Third, we helped these groups, once the arrivals started to happen, to sort out arrival details and to navigate the first full days of helping someone settle into a new home.
There have been some challenges in this process. First and foremost is keeping up with the demand of our constituents and others who want to work with us. We've had so many new groups coming to us, in addition to the groups we've always worked with over the years, and there's been a steep learning curve for many of these groups. It has been a challenge.
Second, it has been difficult to get blended visa office referred profiles all the time. There are hundreds of groups across Canada still waiting to get involved, and the number of profiles that the visa officers can provide is limited. However, one positive development because of this is that groups are coming to us and asking who else they can help. It has been exciting to see that while last year we as the Mennonite Central Committee had a tenfold increase in the number of sponsorships we have submitted, it was not just Syrians and Iraqis; many other populations benefited from this.
Third, the frenetic pace of the arrivals during the surge was nearly overwhelming as we tried to make sure that the right people got information about arrivals. In addition to that, some of the blended VOR profiles came with high needs. It has been a challenge to find the resources for that, but we have been working with that, and in the early days it appears it's still going well.
As we look ahead, I think there are a number of things we need to keep an eye on. First, we want to make sure that the help that this refugee population is getting does not divert help from other populations. We have been hearing from the government that they want to continue to deal with the backlogs of other populations around the world, where people can wait for up to five years, sometimes more, for a decision to be made.
Second, we anticipate that Syrian refugees, like other populations, will have sponsorship needs themselves. They will look to us to help them find ways to get their family members here. That's something we'll need to think about as we go. We'll need to make sure, in the years ahead, that's part of the plans for immigration levels going forward.
Finally, we want to make sure that the refugee resettlement in this context does not overwhelm, that we think about this in the context of everything else that's going on. MCC believes that while resettlement plays an important role in mitigating suffering and is good for Canada and the hosts who supply support, it's important for us to make sure that the focus is on the root causes of forced migration, and trying to deal with it is important in diplomacy, peace building, relief aid, and development.