More than 140 refugees in Australian detention set to be resettled in Canada under sponsorship scheme

By Mostafa Rachwani

Almost 150 refugees held within Australia’s offshore processing system in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, or in onshore detention, are in the last stages of approval for resettlement in Canada.

The non-profit migrant and refugee settlement service Mosaic, based in Vancouver, said it had successfully submitted applications on behalf of 66 people in PNG and Nauru, a further 78 in onshore detention, and 98 family members in third countries.

All 242 applications have passed initial approval in Ottawa, with the files now forwarded to the Canadian visa office in Australia.

“It’s just a matter of bureaucracy in how they will finalise the applications there,” Mosaic’s Saleem Spindari said. “And we are confident that they will be approved.”

The applications have been made possible by Canada’s program in which private citizens can sponsor a refugee’s resettlement, as long as they commit to providing “emotional and financial support to the refugee for the full sponsorship period” and raise the equivalent of one year of social security.

Spindari said the organisation felt the need to intervene in the plight of refugees in indefinite detention.

“There is no end in sight for the refugees who have been in detention for up to seven years, some even more, and who are really facing horrible circumstances. Their mental health is deteriorating, and there have been cases of people attempting suicide,” he said.

Mosaic, as a sponsorship agreement holder, is allocated a limited number of private sponsorship spots, and decided to use all of them for refugees stuck in indefinite detention.

“Our organisation decided to use all of our allocation for two to three years for this program, because we really don’t want refugees to feel like they are forgotten,” Spindari said.

“We still feel the Australian government should have been the one to find a solution to resettle refugees in Australia, but in the absence of any commitment, and seeing that this is dragging for a really long time, we thought this could be a solution for the plight of refugees there.”

Once applications are completed and a visa is issued, refugees become permanent residents upon arrival in Canada. After three years they become eligible to apply for citizenship.

Iris Challoner, a manager at Mosaic’s refugee sponsorship program, said this offered them a more permanent solution than any possibilities in Australia.

“None of them are finding a durable solution, the bridging visa is not a permanent solution. And when you think about the difference, when you arrive in Canada, they’re permanent residents. That puts them at the same level as everyone else, except you can’t vote.

“And within three years, they can be Canadian.”

So far none of the applicants are able to travel to Canada due to Covid, but both Spindari and Challoner said they hoped they would arrive before the end of the year.

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The resettlement forms part of the Operation Not Forgotten program, which was developed in 2019 and involves numerous organisations, volunteers and donors in Australia and Canada.

The program focuses on “providing hope” to refugees in detention who were excluded from Australia’s resettlement deal with the United States.

That deal is capped at 1,250 places, and is approaching its end. So far, 936 refugees have been resettled in US, 418 from PNG, 395 from Nauru and 123 from Australia. A further 258 have been provisionally approved, most of whom are in Australia.

That would bring the number resettled in the US to 1,194.

Sources with knowledge of the program say, despite the US increasing the size of its refugee resettlement program this year, there will be no additional places for refugees held by Australia.

There are currently 239 refugees and asylum seekers held offshore by Australia – 109 on Nauru and 130 in Papua New Guinea.

According to government figures, 1,223 “transitory persons” are currently in Australia, brought back from offshore processing islands.

So far Operation Not Forgotten has raised $2.9m, of which Australians have raised $2.5m via the Refugee Council of Australia, which helps address logistical issues as well as raising the money and taking the refugees’ case to the government.

The council’s chief executive, Paul Power, said it had proved a “fantastic initiative”.

“Its a really wonderful initiative, and thousands of people have donated and there are dozens and dozens of volunteers involved in Australia in helping Mosaic with their preparations of applications in Canada.

“It’s really mobilised a lot of energy and generosity in both countries.”

A spokesperson for Australia’s home affairs department said it encouraged “transitory persons” to consider third country migratory options.

“Third country migration options remain available to persons under regional processing arrangements, including resettlement in the United States, settlement in PNG, or voluntary return.

“Transitory persons are also encouraged to explore alternative third country options, including Canadian private sponsorship.”

It reiterated the government’s policy that none of the cohort would be allowed to settle in Australia.

Challoner said she was at a loss as to how a situation like this could develop.

“We don’t understand how something like this could happen. How people could be in an indefinite situation like this, in indefinite detention in a place that will never be a durable solution?

“But we concentrate on how we can make a difference. So we try and stay away from the politics. We’re all really looking at what we can offer as a solution, where can we assist.”

The Australian government is believed to be considering adopting a sponsorship program similar to the Canadian model.