Canadian groups that have brought dozens of LGBT refugees to safety since 2011 are asking the federal government to make their pilot program permanent. But the federal government might instead fold the program into a general private-sponsorship system.

The Rainbow Refugee Assistance Program (RRAP) brings LGBT refugees to Canada with the help of volunteer groups across the country. Originally launched under the former Conservative government for three years, the program has been renewed twice, with Canada’s immigration department providing a total of $300,000 for refugees’ first three months of living expenses.

Donors have contributed $1.4 million to the groups, which shows enthusiasm for the program, according to Capital Rainbow Refuge coordinator Lisa Hébert.

“The Rainbow RAP makes the settlement of LGBTQ refugees human and welcoming because it provides ongoing support,” Hébert said at a May 3 news conference.

The immigration department says 69 cases have been identified for sponsorship through the RRAP, of which 57 were resettled, 18 are in process and four have withdrawn. The cases span 13 different countries and some involve two people.

Roughly half those refugees were referred to Canada by the UN Refugee Agency, while the rest avoided UN registration and connected directly with Rainbow Refugee groups  because they live in “states that can jail or kill LGBTQ people,”Hébert says.

Hébert joined other advocates in testifying at the House immigration committee on May 3, asking the government to make the pilot project permanent. MPs asked the groups about problems LGBT people face in refugee resettlement, such as discrimination within camps and inappropriate questioning in UN interviews. 

Rainbow Refugee Vancouver chair Sharalyn Jordan noted that even in countries that officially protect LGBT people, they can face persecution from strangers they encounter, making it hard to know where they’re safe.

The committee heard from three refugees who arrived through the RRAP’s help, including Eka Nasution:

“My husband and I were married discreetly in Canada without having any friends or family present. It broke my heart. But having him next to me at the Nepean Point here in Ottawa with our officiant, I told myself that this is perfect. We had no celebration afterwards,” Nasution told the committee, recounting a life in Indonesia marred by death threats and police shutting down his LGBT activism projects.

A RRAP group tried to bring Nasution and his husband to Canada, but long wait times and increasing risks convinced the group to instead help the two apply for general Canadian visas. They both arrived in Canada roughly a year ago and successfully claimed refugee status.

Nasution is now director of the Foundation of Hope, a charity fundraising for programs like RRAP chapters. He said that though Canada’s recent resettlement of Syrians has been inspiring, it also delayed his own visa application as well as refugee processing for a handful of LGBT people he’s contacted.

“It is better [if] all the assistance program for LGBTQ refugees is not only focused on one single country, actually in the Middle East. It has to be done in terms of humanity.”

While the RRAP groups asked for permanent funding for refugees and administering the program, a senior official told the committee they might instead replace it with something else. 

“Moving forward, our objective is that LGBTQ2 groups will be able to meet the financial and support responsibilities of private sponsorship, in the same manner as Canada’s other private sponsors,” says David Manicom, the associate assistant deputy minister for the immigration department’s strategic and program policy.

That could mean no government funding for the groups, but possibly the opportunity  to bring in more people.

“We’re looking at the various options as to how best to continue to meet the needs of LGBTQ refugees,” he says.

The committee’s Conservative and NDP members forcefully interrogated Manicom during the May 3 meeting over why Canada doesn’t log how many refugees it resettles based on specific kinds of persecution. 

Manicom cited privacy rules and logistical hurdles, even if some refugees specifically mention LGBT persecution in their UN case file.

“Even when we have some numbers, if your statistics aren’t global and comprehensive, you can’t use them. They are just sophisticated anecdotes,” he said.

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