WINNIPEG — When they got together nearly a decade ago to sponsor refugees, a group of Winnipeg churches didn’t expect it would take so long, they’d all arrive at once or that Ottawa would cancel their medical benefits.
Now the neighbourhood churches say they’re struggling to live up to their commitment as a surge of newcomers arrive.
“It’s the looming costs of everything that escalate,” said retired United Church minister Ken Anstie with the Nassau Street Churches Refugee Committee. He’s scrambling to find housing for 10 Somali refugees who began arriving in November. The churches — Crescent Fort Rouge United, St. Luke’s Anglican, Holy Rosary Roman Catholic, Christian Science and, recently, Harrow United — have committed to helping them get settled and covering their living costs for one year.
“We try to put on fundraisers and people give personally,” said Anstie.
But with a higher cost of living, an aging congregation, refugees arriving in rapid succession and the federal government cutting their health benefits, it’s getting tougher, said the volunteer.
Private sponsors were stunned when Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced effective June 30 it will no longer pay for refugees’ prosthetics, prescriptions or dental and vision care.
Had the churches known the federal government was going to renege on its commitment to pay for some of those expenses, they would have thought twice about all the sponsorships they committed to, said Anstie.
“It may mean in future, private sponsorships will be cut back because of all the added expenses on top of basic costs like rent and heat.”
Rev. Barb Janes at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church called it “despicable.”
She remembers Immigration Minister Jason Kenney meeting with churches in Winnipeg and encouraging them to sponsor “Christian refugees from Iraq.” Kenney didn’t mention cuts to supplemental health benefits, she said.
“What galls me is that at no point in that presentation did he say there was a plan to renege on the sponsorship agreement and stick the sponsors with health care costs,” said Janes.
The health care needs of refugees are unknown before they arrive, she said.
“To think that refugee sponsors can A, diagnose these things and B, afford treatment is crazy,” she said. Before they get here, refugees receive little if any medical treatment, have a poor diet and live with improper sanitation, Janes said. “If they fled a war zone, they may well have injuries that have gone unattended,” she said. “Some have faced torture.”
On June 30, Immigration backtracked and said it will continue to provide coverage to government-assisted refugees but privately sponsored refugees are on their own.
Amputee Cyrilo Simpunga who lost a leg in a Congo machete attack got a new prosthetic just before June 30. He still needs expensive medication for a festering ulcer that his sponsor Hospitality House is covering. The Catholic and Anglican church-funded organization and the Diocese of Rupert’s Land have taken the federal government to court for stripping new refugees of medical benefits such as prescription medicine and prosthetics.
Hospitality House has to cover more costs while it’s receiving more refugees.
“Our arrivals are up about one third over last year,” said Tom Denton, its executive director. Most are from older sponsorship applications that are now being processed by beefed-up visa centres in Nairobi and Cairo, Denton said. The federal government put a cap on any new sponsorship applications while it clears a backlog of refugee files waiting to be processed.
“… Eventually the visa posts do catch up on the old cases and the day of reckoning comes,” he said. The refugees eventually arrive in Winnipeg.
“One never really knows until the last minute,” he said. “Typically we get about 10 to 14 days notice of an arrival, but we have had them in the recent past with as little as eight hours.” With a vacancy rate hovering close to zero, it can take up to nine months to find long-term accommodation for the refugees, said Denton.
At one point last year, Hospitality House had 17 newcomers in its short-term receiving home that normally house nine, Denton said. They had to rent a second house.
“The housing crunch in Winnipeg is a big problem for all full sponsorship cases.”
» Winnipeg Free Press
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 21, 2012