As Sudan crisis rages, resettlement stalled; groups urge Ottawa to do more to help

OTTAWA — Canada has yet to reunite a single family with relatives who are trying to escape conflict-racked Sudan, while diaspora groups are demanding the federal government do more to end a yearlong civil war.

The fighting that erupted last April between duelling militias in the northeastern African country has forced out at least 8.5 million people in what the United Nations calls the largest internal displacement crisis in the world.

And so far, Canada has done little to stop it, said Imad Satti, director of the Edmonton-based Sudanese Canadian Communities Association. 

“We haven’t done anything — just expressing concern, which doesn’t solve any problems,” Satti said. “There’s not enough pushing from the international committee, including Canada, to stop this war.”

Sudan is in the grips of a “catastrophic situation” and on the brink of a manmade famine, UN relief advocate Edem Wosornu told the Security Council last month.

“There are reports of mass graves, gang rapes, shockingly indiscriminate attacks in densely populated areas and many more horrors,” she said. “We are failing the people of Sudan.”

Canada expressed concern about the security situation last spring, and airlifted citizens. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly visited neighbouring Kenya to support neighbouring countries in trying to push for peace.

But since then, Canada has avoided sanctioning warlords or publicly calling out the countries that have helped fuel the war. Satti wants Ottawa to do both — and even press the UN to intervene in hopes of restoring order.

Canada has instead focused on humanitarian aid, earmarking $165 million last summer for Sudan and neighbouring countries taking in refugees.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller did announce a family reunification program late last year designed to allow people fleeing Sudan to join relatives in Canada with the means to provide financial support.

Families, however, say the program demands paperwork that is impossible to gather in a warzone, and requires sponsors to have $18,100 in cash plus a minimum annual income of $51,128 to sponsor a family of four.

Satti, whose organization represents Sudanese groups across Canada, said some people have cash sitting idle in a bank account while they try to help relatives do paperwork. Others, he said, are sending money to help relatives stay alive, depleting their savings in the process.

Ottawa has tweaked the program to allow biometric screening such as fingerprinting to occur after people’s applications are accepted, but Satti said it is still expensive and often dangerous to reach one of Sudan’s neighbouring countries in order to visit a Canadian consulate.

The program started accepting applications on Feb. 27, and Ottawa said that as of March 25 it had received 680 applications involving roughly 1,500 people that meet the bar for processing. 

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not say how many applications it has received that haven’t yet passed “completeness checks” and added that it hadn’t approved any applications yet.

Miller said the program, which will accept up to 3,250 applications, was designed with Sudanese diaspora groups, and he’s open to improvements. He also doesn’t expect anyone to arrive in Canada any time soon.

“We are looking to welcome Sudanese people fleeing war at the end of this year or the beginning of next year,” he said on March 27. “It’s very important to talk about what has become a forgotten war for a lot of us.”

New Democrats say the government is moving far too slowly in what Ottawa has already deemed a humanitarian effort to rescue people from an emergency.

“These people should be Canada’s priority — especially in instances where there are minor children who have been separated from their families,” MP Heather McPherson wrote in a letter to Liberal ministers last month.

McPherson also urged Ottawa to step up its diplomatic pressure and humanitarian response.

Ottawa’s former ambassador to Sudan, Nicholas Coghlan, has argued for months that Canada should follow its U.S. and European peers in sanctioning the economic networks that Sudan’s warlords rely on. 

Canada hasn’t appointed a senior diplomat to stay in the region and gather intelligence on how Ottawa could best use its humanitarian and diplomatic heft, Coghlan noted in a column published by the Canadian International Council. 

“Unless this omission is rectified, we are in no position to consider playing even a second-fiddle role in bringing the fighting to an end,” he wrote.

Canada hasn’t issued a statement on the crisis since June 2023, Coghlan added. “Signs of Canadian interest — let alone commitment — are disappointingly few and far between.”

Officials at Global Affairs Canada were asked to speak to those complaints, but had yet to respond.

It’s “very disappointing” Canada still can’t get relatives out of Sudan, Satti said. He worries constantly for his siblings, whom he loses touch with for days when skirmishes escalate and telecommunications go down.

“We are very stressed and very worried,” he said. “It’s not being considered as an emergency.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2024.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press