A group of Swift Current residents has started an initiative to bring four refugees stranded on an island in the Pacific Ocean to their city.

The resettlement team in Swift Current is part of an initiative across Canada to create groups of at least five people to help Manus and Nauru refugees start new lives.

Over 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers have been held in Australian off-shore detention centres on Manus Island, part of the country of Papua New Guinea, and Nauru, an island country in the Pacific Ocean.

These facilities were established in 2013 when the Australian government started to implement an offshore immigration processing policy to deter refugees and asylum seekers from arriving by boat.

The Australian government has faced international pressure over this policy and detention centres have been closed, but hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers still remain on these islands.

Swift Current resident Anika Henderson spearheaded the effort to start a local resettlement team for four refugees from Manus Island. She lived in Australia for a few years and had the opportunity to work with asylum seekers there. She has continued to follow the Australian government’s refugee policies over the years.

“For six years, the Australian government has failed to resettle hundreds of refugees, violating their human rights,” she told the Prairie Post by e-mail. “I have been aware of the suffering of those in offshore detention and recently learned that we may actually be able to do something to help.”

She discovered the group Ads-Up, which was originally started by Australian expats in the United States to help Manus and Nauru refugees to resettle in America. More recently they have expanded their efforts to Canada, and they are looking for volunteers to create refugee settlement teams in different communities to sponsor refugees.

“Ads-Up is helping with guiding the application process, working with UNHCR to identify vulnerable cases, providing support to the resettlement team to help prepare for the arrivals, and supporting with fundraising,” she said. “They have been absolutely integral in opening this opportunity up for our team.”

She started to share information about this opportunity on Facebook and also spoke to friends about it. Her next step was to hold an information session on Jan. 16 for anyone interested in creating a resettlement team in Swift Current, and a dozen people showed up.

“We needed five people to sign on as official sponsors and by the end of the meeting we had more than that,” she said. “Amazing! In addition to the 12 who attended the meeting, I have had messages from lots of folks who are interested in being involved.”

She was very grateful for this positive response in Swift Current, but also not too surprised by that.

“The conditions that these men have been living in for the last six or more years is absolutely appalling, but most people in Canada have never heard of Manus and are unfamiliar with Australia’s punitive asylum seeker policies,” she said. “When people are made aware of the situation and learn that there may be something they can do to help, people from all walks of life seem compelled to help in whatever way they can.”

The Swift Current resettlement team plans to bring the four refugees to the city through Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program.

“We have to demonstrate that we have $16,500 in place for each individual we sponsor,” she explained. “We currently have the funds in place for two of the four. So we need to raise $33,000 in order to be able to sponsor the second two men.”

She added that they are hoping to raise some additional money to have more than just the minimum of $16,500 per refugee available for their resettlement.

“These refugees will also arrive with flight debt, meaning that they will be responsible for repaying the cost of their flight to Canada,” she said. “So we would like to be able to raise an additional $3,000 per person as a bit of a safety net.”

The resettlement team has already opened a bank account at Innovation Credit Union and they will welcome any financial contributions. The name of the account is Freedom 2020: SC Manus Refugee Sponsorship Initiative.

“At this point, we are a bit busy working on the paperwork end of things, but as soon as we are done with that, the fundraising efforts will need to be initiated,” she said. “We would love to hear from anyone who might want to help with fundraising. While we work on fundraising and wait for the applications to be processed, we will also be working towards setting up a settlement team. Members of this team will be tasked with different roles, including household setup, health, English language support, transportation, employment, integration, and more.”

The resettlement team has already identified four refugees that can potentially come to Swift Current, but some details still need to be confirmed by Ads-Up and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

“All of these men have spent six or more years on Manus Island,” she said. “The situation offshore has been evolving very quickly in the last few months with some refugees being held in Bomana Detention Centre in Port Moresby, others being kept in hotel detention situations, and others being evacuated for medical reasons. Some of those that have been identified to us are in very precarious situations in Papua New Guinea.”

Ben Winsor, who co-founded Ads-Up in the United States, said the response in Canada has been excellent.

“Everyone is working together to make this happen,” he told the Prairie Post. “We really had a great response from people in Canada, who are forming resettlement teams and who are very enthusiastic in fundraising the money to supply us to get these government applications in, and getting their friends on board.”

Most of these applications are still being processed, but three refugees have already arrived in Canada.

“We expect this year there'll be a handful more and then next year there'll be even more,” he said. “Most of our applications have only gone in over the past two months and so we expect in the next six to 12 months that there'll be more arrivals.”

The Manus and Nauru refugees have been fleeing from their countries of origin for various reasons. There are LGBT people escaping from discrimination, Rohingya who have been fleeing genocide in Myanmar, Tamil refugees fleeing from persecution in Sri Lanka, people who are members of ethnic minorities, people facing religious persecution, and those trying to escape from violent domestic situations. Many were only teenagers when they arrived on these islands and are now in their early twenties.

“What impresses me most about all of them is their resilience in the face of all of this and the years of incarceration and isolation, being stranded on Manus and Nauru without any hope of a future,” he said. “It really is a wonderful thing when you're able to give them that lifeline, to give them a pathway out, and to see them finally being able to get on with their lives.”

These refugees have been coming to the United States under a deal negotiated between the Australian and American governments. The refugee support agencies in the United States are only required to give them very close support for 90 days, and Ads-Up groups have been trying to provide longer term assistance to refugees to resettle.

Winsor feels Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program is a better model to support refugees when they arrive in their new country.

“It gives them an immediate connection to the community, it allows the community to take ownership of their resettlement, and it sets them up for success,” he noted. “It provides them with ongoing support, a base of funds to start with, and it is vastly superior to the system used in the United States, where refugees are given three months of support and then entirely left on their own to fend for themselves in a country that doesn't have strong support networks for even Americans, let alone refugees.”

He said it is inspiring to see residents in a smaller community such as Swift Current stepping up and getting engaged to support refugees. His sentiment is shared by Henderson, who feels Swift Current is full of welcoming community members who have a history of standing alongside their newest neighbours and celebrating the diversity and richness that newcomers bring.

“I feel like residents of Swift Current really do see themselves as part of a connected global community, with an obligation to act compassionately in the face of human suffering and that makes me incredibly proud to live here,” she said.

Anyone who wants to learn more about the progress of the Swift Current sponsorship team can find details on their Facebook page, Freedom 2020 – SC Manus Refugee Sponsorship Initiative. For more information and to get involved, send an e-mail to Henderson at anika@imagineimmigration.ca.

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