Good morning, committee members, and thank you so much for the opportunity to speak today.
The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, OCASI, represents the collective voice of Ontario organizations serving immigrants and refugees. We have over 230 member agencies across the province.
OCASI is supportive of the government's decision to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. In fact, we joined our 10 sister umbrella organizations across Canada to issue a news release in December 2015 to affirm the support of the national immigrant and refugee serving sector for this initiative.
We are proud of the way our sector stepped up to meet the challenge, sometimes at personal cost to many of the front-line workers who went above and beyond. OCASI acknowledges that there were challenges overall, including for our sector, and there are aspects of our program delivery and structure that may need to be strengthened.
Despite all the challenges, we believe this experience demonstrated our strength. It demonstrated the value that we provide: one, through services and programming; two, through strengthening community capacity and leadership; and three, in supporting individuals and families on their journey to becoming Canadians.
In September 2015, we collectively issued a set of recommendations on how Canada should respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. We believe these recommendations are still relevant, even more so today. I will mention some of them here.
The first is on improving family-linked admissions. Flexible measures, such as temporary resident permits, should be introduced for Syrians with family in Canada. We recommended that 10,000 government-assisted refugees be admitted by the end of 2015, and we are happy to see that the government exceeded that number. However, the fact that the government shut down the infrastructure after reaching the 25,000 target left a bad taste and threatened the goodwill that had been created in the Canadian public. We welcome the announcement that these resources are to be restored.
Regarding the facilitation of private sponsorship of Syrians, the government has supported the efforts of private sponsors, including efforts to restore full access to interim federal health coverage to privately sponsored refugees. The risk of large medical costs no longer deters sponsors. However, much more can be done. In particular, we should work to reduce the red tape for sponsorship applications and make processing of applications faster.
The government must allocate significantly more resources, human, financial, and logistical, in order to realize these recommendations. In particular, it should allocate more resources for processing and allocate additional resources for overseas visa offices so that refugees can arrive more quickly. The government should alleviate the pressure on the visa offices by transferring some of the overseas processing of visas to an office in Canada. The government should continue to provide timely information through the government website, and to set up a hotline to answer questions and facilitate processing. At present, much of the burden of providing information is taken up by community-based organizations and by other groups that are often not resourced to do this work.
On the importance of maintaining responses to other refugees, we strongly urge the committee to recommend that the needs of other refugees must also be met, including the many refugees from sub-Saharan Africa who are in precarious situations in the Middle East and Europe. They should receive the same courtesies that are given to Syrian refugees.
In addition to refugee resettlement, there is an urgent need to fast-track family reunification for Syrian refugees as well as refugees from other countries.
OCASI believes there are additional priorities that need to be taken into consideration going forward. Canadians have opened their hearts, their minds, their homes and communities to create the space for so many people to be involved in refugee resettlement. This should be supported by the government.
The resettlement experience has highlighted for the immigrant and refugee serving sector that many challenges still need to be addressed, and there are gaps we have to fill, such as the lack of formal coordinating systems, including for service delivery and case management.
We see several areas for improvement, including the need for more funding that should flow faster, the need for more resources and information to support the work, and the need for improved communication between government and the sector at all levels.
In Ontario, we are thankful that the provincial government made its funding commitment several months before the federal government, allowing many service delivery organizations to prepare their capacity. Six years of federal funding cuts to settlement have had a detrimental impact on the sector, including capacity, especially in trained and experienced staff.
The Syrian refugee resettlement initiative highlighted the critical need for investment in social housing and the need for strategy and action on a national housing initiative. It further highlighted the need for a poverty reduction strategy, including an increase in social assistance rates, the monthly income that is given to government-assisted refugees. It also highlighted the need for rent subsidies.
We ask you to recommend that the government immediately end the transportation loan scheme, which only serves to further impoverish a group that is already facing significant financial challenges.
The Syrian refugee resettlement initiative highlighted the need for affordable and appropriate child care, more language classes for different levels of learners, and different service times outside of the usual daytime classes in many more locations.