Toronto: Hundreds of asylum seekers rejected by Australia and stranded in Nauru and Papua New Guinea could be resettled in Canada under a unique program that allows individuals to privately sponsor refugees.
Australian expats in Canada, alarmed at the deteriorating mental health of many asylum seekers in offshore detention, have formed a network to raise funds and lodge applications to bring refugees to their adopted homeland.
They are focused almost exclusively on the 330 estimated asylum seekers who are ineligible for the US resettlement program and have no prospect of being accepted by another third country.
Amirhossein Sahragard, a 27-year-old Iranian refugee who tried to reach Australia by boat, arrived at Toronto airport on Thursday night (Friday AEDT) after almost seven years on Manus Island.
He is believed to be just the second refugee from Australia’s offshore detention system to be resettled in Canada under its private sponsorship scheme.
“Before this, I had no future,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age after his arrival.
“When I found out I was coming to Canada my body went into shock. I couldn’t believe it.”
Another Iranian refugee who was detained on Manus Island will arrive in Toronto next week.
Canada’s private sponsorship scheme, which has operated since the late 1970s, allows groups of five people to apply to bring refugees of their choosing to Canada.
Sponsors must raise about $18,000 for each refugee and help them find housing, employment and counselling services.
“There is no other way for these people to get out,” said Juliet Donald, an Australian clinical psychologist who lives in Toronto.
She has applied to privately sponsor a gay refugee who fled Iran after being blackmailed by associates of an ex-lover. She is also fundraising to sponsor a refugee family of four on Nauru.
“In a strange way it turns out I can do more from Canada than I could in Australia,” she said.
“I feel this huge relief that there is something I can do to help.”
Donald, originally from Sydney, is a member of the Canadian branch of Ads-Up (Australian Diaspora Steps Up), a group of Australian expats and Canadian locals helping to resettle refugees.
Ben Winsor, who co-founded Ads-Up in the US last year, said the group decided to expand to Canada after the surprise May election result.
“We were really rattled by a spate of suicide attempts and we felt we had to take a harder look at what we could do for people who were getting turned away by the Trump administration,” Winsor said.
"Taxpayers are wasting billions of dollars, Australia’s name is being dragged through the mud, and people’s lives are being stolen from them year after year.
“We need to end it, and this is a way that we can do that.”
The group has 17 applications underway to privately resettle refugees, and expects that number to rapidly expand.
It is estimated that around 600 asylum seekers remain on Nauru and PNG, and another 135 have been transferred to Australia for medical treatment.
“The only limit really is the amount of money and volunteers,” Ads-Up member Laura Beth Bugg, a university professor who moved from Sydney to Toronto, said.
“In theory we could resettle everybody.”
Bugg co-sponsored Amirhossein Sahragard’s refugee application and greeted him at the airport on Thursday with a winter coat.
She said Canadians were generally shocked to learn about Manus Island and Nauru.
“It is not the image they had of Australia,” she said.
A parallel project in western Canada, run by two local non-profit organisations, is aiming to resettle up to 200 refugees from Nauru and PNG.
Laurie Cooper, from the Canada Caring Society, said the project had raised approximately $330,000 and was about to submit its first batch of 17 applications. It can take between 18 and 24 months for applications to be processed.
The US has accepted around 630 refugees from Nauru and PNG, but has also rejected hundreds of applicants under its “extreme vetting” process. Iranian and Syrian refugees have especially low acceptance rates.
Refugees must pass security, criminal and medical checks before being accepted into Canada, but the process is less onerous than in the US.
Donald said that privately sponsoring a refugee carries immense responsibilities, but that someone had to do it.
“I’d rather be a little scared and do it, than to walk away,” she said. “This is something I can do that makes me proud to be Australian.”