The Globe and Mail by Anneke Smit, Gemma Smyth and Jillian Rogin 19 December 2016

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had coffee with Syrian refugees in Toronto recently, and discussed the successes and challenges of their first year in Canada. Two days later, the Senate Sub-committee on Human Rights released its most recent report on the Syrian refugee resettlement. In both cases the message was clear: In order to thrive in Canada, refugees need their families around them.

Family reunification is essential to improve refugees’ ability to settle successfully in Canada. Until Syrian refugees can be sure their family is safe, they will not be fully able to take advantage of the opportunity of a new life in Canada. As one young man eloquently expressed to the Prime Minister, “I live with great people, I am safe, I can do anything I want. But each time I see the news of what’s happening in Turkey or in Syria … each hour I have to call [my family] to see if they’re alive.”

But family reunification also aids integration in Canada. Having grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members around helps Syrian refugees access the educational, employment and other opportunities available to them here. It can ease their ability to attend language classes or apply for a job while someone looks after the kids, and help them to adapt to their new communities more quickly.

Studies show that extended family reunification is a significant determiner of successful integration in the country of resettlement. Yet Canadian family reunification processes are slow and narrow in scope.

How can we do better on family reunification? First, the existing process must be accelerated. Last week’s announcement from Immigration Minister John McCallum of faster processing for spousal applications was a significant step forward. Other existing categories of family reunification must now be similarly sped up.

Second, we must move away from our policy bias in favour of nuclear families. Currently, family reunification is available only to spouses, parents, and dependent children under 19. This narrow definition of the family does not align with many cultures, particularly in the wake of war. Even before their displacement, extended Syrian families including aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews often lived together or had highly interconnected lives. The tragedies of war only intensified these relationships as surviving members of families clung together amid loss and trauma. We need to recognize this reality and broaden the legal definition of family for reunification purposes, particularly now for Syrian refugees.

We know that in order to bring in more than 25,000 refugees in just a couple of months, complicated files were avoided, as were single young male refugees. Therefore, some of the most vulnerable were not offered resettlement, even when other members of the family were. In the case of the refugees our group is sponsoring, 10 family members were living together for years under one roof in Lebanon. The nuclear family of husband, wife and four young children was selected for resettlement while the other family members – elderly parents, orphaned nephew, and brother aged 18 – were not. Neither was another sibling, her spouse and young children. Given the limited options for family reunification after arrival in Canada, this selective approach is particularly distressing.

As a result, Syrian refugees will have to look to private sponsorship (groups of five, for example) as their only hope for extended family reunification. This process is complex and financially out of reach for most resettled refugees for at least several years. In the case of “our” family, they found in us a sponsor group willing to raise the funds and sponsor their most vulnerable family members. But that shouldn’t have been necessary had the family been resettled together, or if family reunification channels were more expansive.

This “echo effect” of our massive and laudable Syrian resettlement effort is not going away. During the Kosovo refugee resettlement in 1999, Canada allowed for reunification of a wide array of extended family members of Kosovars already in Canada. We can do the same again today. Along with adequate language training, employment support, mental health counselling and other settlement services, reuniting families is a key part of ensuring this was a job well done.

Anneke Smit and Gemma Smyth are professors in the Faculty of Law, University of Windsor. Jillian Rogin is a lawyer with Community Legal Aid in Windsor.