Greetings. I am honoured to have this opportunity to speak with you today. I represent Compass Community Church, a church of about 1,500 people in the Orangeville area. We would like to express our appreciation to this government and to each of you for your work and the care and attention being given to refugees.
As a church community, we've been deeply moved by the plight of refugees. A year ago, we felt led by God to reach out and share our resources by welcoming refugees to Orangeville, so we initiated a private sponsorship through a sponsorship agreement holder, sponsoring a group of Eritrean refugees, five cousins of a friend of mine in Orangeville. These refugees fled Eritrea 4 to 7 years ago, making perilous journeys through various refugee camps and via human smugglers until reaching Israel. Three of them have families, so the total number of refugees we are sponsoring is 16.
Given the past year's emphasis on and almost total resource allocation toward Syrian refugees, our sponsorship efforts were stalled for months. We had hoped to submit our applications by last December, but our sponsorship agreement holder explained that only Syrian refugee applications were being processed. It wasn't until June that our first application was accepted, and even now only six of our sixteen refugees have their paperwork in process.
Although we initially had much momentum, raising nearly $75,000 in the first three months and organizing multiple committees, the delay has been discouraging. We formed bonds with other local private sponsorship groups, but since they are all sponsoring Syrians, we have found ourselves left behind, as their applications moved ahead at a rapid pace.
In late May, our sponsorship agreement holder was informed of a cap of six refugees from Israel that they could help process for 2016. This cap is a limit imposed by our government. Compass Church was able to use these six spots to begin our applications, and we have received them under grievous protest for the 10 refugees we have to postpone until next year, and perhaps longer. We had hoped to settle this family together, knowing that their shared experiences and mutual support would have greatly benefited them in their transition to Canada.
Eritreans are a people who have known much suffering. Their own government exploits them, abuses them, and effectively enslaves them in forced military service. In its 2015 inquiry into human rights in Eritrea, the United Nations found systemic, widespread, and gross human rights violations being committed by the Eritrean government, violations which may indeed constitute crimes against humanity. Citizens are routinely and arbitrarily arrested, tortured, made to disappear, or executed without trial, and the rule of fear exists throughout the country. There is no freedom of expression, association, or religion. A high percentage of Eritreans have fled the country, facing severe punishment if caught. Young people there know that if they want to choose a life for themselves, self-determination, they must escape and find it elsewhere. In doing so, our Compass-sponsored refugees endured much on their journeys to Israel.
However, their situation in Israel remains extremely difficult and has deteriorated greatly since they first arrived. The Israeli anti-infiltration law makes it almost impossible for them, or any refugee, to be officially designated refugees by the Israeli government, and there is much anti-African sentiment. Human Rights Watch has reported that Eritreans and Sudanese there are denied access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, and that the resulting insecure legal status is used by Israel to unlawfully detain them indefinitely, coercing thousands into leaving for unsafe countries.
Many refugees, including some of my own group, are currently detained in the Holot detention centre or in jail in the Negev Desert, where there is substandard food and medical care. There are also reports of various human rights abuses. Amnesty International has called upon the Israeli government to stop flagrantly violating international human rights law with its detention of asylum-seekers in what is essentially a prison in the desert.
While I am very proud of my country and the way it has welcomed Syrian refugees—and we do welcome them all with open arms—it is unjust to prioritize one group to the detriment of all others, and I truly don't think that was the intent of the Canadian people.
I plead with my government to lift or greatly increase the caps given to our visa offices, particularly in Israel, where the need is so great. Please move more resources there and enable private sponsorship groups to extend our own hospitality and generosity toward those in desperate need.
There are many groups like mine wanting and waiting to sponsor refugees currently detained in Israel. We are being demoralized and stymied by these incredibly low caps.
Please improve the processing times for refugees in Israel. Why are they being lost or held in limbo for years? Refugees in Israel are not legally declared refugees by that government, and only sponsorships through a sponsorship agreement holder are permissible. As we've done for Iraqi and Syrian refugees, I ask that the minister extend similar regulatory exemptions to allow sponsorship of Eritrean refugees in groups of five, and community group sponsors without refugee status recognitions.
These measures are necessary to help this vulnerable group. All of Canada was moved by the sight of one small Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, whose drowned body washed up on shore a year ago. We weren't just emotionally moved, but we were moved to action. Last June, in three separate incidents, 700 more refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. Most were Eritrean, and many were women and children. A female cousin of one our Compass refugees was among them. May these deaths, may these people, and may these children not go unnoticed by our government. May the plight of the Eritrean people move us to action. Every human life is worth saving.