In too many countries around the world, LGBTQ persons are criminalized — singled out for who they love — with criminal penalties including prison time and death. Canada’s refugee admission system is not perfect, but one of its great strengths is that it prioritizes the admission of this highly vulnerable population. In doing so, Canada joins a small number of other nations in signalling the importance of protecting the equal rights to which LGBTQ persons are entitled.
Since 2011, one way that Canada has recognized the particularly precarious position of LGBTQ refugees is by supporting the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Plan. Using this program, LGBTQ refugees can enter Canada and start a new life. They take on Canadian citizenship, with relief and excitement, and become productive and proud citizens of Canada. One recent newcomer told me, “I have felt Canadian all of my life.”
Canadians working in the refugee space already know that, nearly uniquely in the world, Canadians may privately sponsor refugees for admission to Canada. This means that Canadians, in groups of five or more, may identify a person in need beyond our borders, raise the money needed to support that person for one full year, and submit legal documentation showing they deserve admission to Canada as a refugee. These groups of Canadians offer financial support and much more. We meet newcomers at the airport, find them homes, connect them to medical help, and help them get the education they need. The Canadian Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program was formally created in 1978, and since that time, groups of five or more Canadians have privately supported the admission and integration of nearly 300,000 refugees.
The government limits the number of privately sponsored refugees admitted to Canada for many reasons, including the cost borne by the state in offering the settlement services all newcomers may access. And yet, because the government also knows that LGBTQ persons are in such peril in so many states, it has exempted them from this limit. That is, since its inception in 2011, the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Plan has permitted private sponsorship of “rainbow refugees” without capping the total number admitted. Using this program, nearly 100 people have been admitted to Canada, supported by groups across the country, including Capital Rainbow Refuge, Rainbow Railroad, and the small community organization I co-run, Rainbow Haven.
To further support our work, the government has reduced the amount of money required per refugee, effectively asking us to raise the equivalent of 9 rather than 12 months of financial support, with the government providing the balance. With this small financial contribution, the government signals that the work we do is valuable and worth encouraging. As allies to LGBTQ persons worldwide, we know that the only limits to how many individuals we can support for migration to Canada are the dollars we can raise and the number of hands we can bring to the task. The government leverages our commitment and activism by providing some of the resources we need to act in defense of our vision of global justice: a global space in which LGBTQ persons can live in safety and dignity, with the people whom they love.
And yet, for reasons that remain opaque to the Canadians who work to support LGBTQ newcomers, the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Plan has not yet been made permanent. As the end of the fiscal year approaches, we activists who rely on this program to save lives — one at a time — are still waiting to learn whether the Liberal Government will renew the program. Why not choose this year to make this program permanent?
At an event last week at the University of Ottawa, LGBTQ newcomers shared their stories. They explained the state-sanctioned abuse they faced in their home country and the tears of relief they shed when they learned they were being resettled to Canada, delivered almost literally into the arms of a new supportive family. A short documentary told their story; there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Mr. Trudeau’s government must renew — permanently — the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Plan. Harnessing the commitment of Canadians to welcome and integrate highly vulnerable LGBTQ people is an expression of the best of Canadian values and the government’s stated goals.
Patti Tamara Lenard is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and co-chair, with Elizabeth Bolton, of Rainbow Haven, a community organization that supports and settles LGBTQ newcomers in Ottawa
Blog post readers interested in viewing the documentary referred to above will find it on the Rainbow Haven Facebook Page.