Vulnerable refugees in limbo due to pandemic
With support workers in isolation, new arrivals left in bewildering spot
Even at the best of times, refugees arrive tired, bewildered and, often, traumatized.
But in these worst of times, they are Canada’s most marginalized and most vulnerable.
With no friends, no family, no English or French language skills, and little, if any, cultural knowledge, most of them are dependent on settlement societies and sponsorship groups to help them navigate their new world.
Now, even that world is changing daily with emergency directives that are incomprehensible for many recent arrivals because translation is limited to a few languages and their navigators are practising physical distancing, working from home because they don’t have protective gear.
Refugee settlement has been designated an essential service during the pandemic and Chris Friesen has barely slept in weeks.
As executive director of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. and co-chairman of the national COVID response team set up by Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada, he’s one of many trying to retool services on the fly in a very complex system.
When the Canadian government and the International Organization for Migration suspended settlement operations on March 17, it left 7,500 people with permanent resident visas stranded.
Of those, 3,903 are government-assisted refugees, which means they are in such urgent need of protection that some are still being brought to Canada. Last week, for example, one family and one individual arrived, one in Alberta and another in Ontario. They’re in quarantine.
Government-assisted refugees include torture victims, single mothers who are victims of violence, people with special medical needs, individuals who had been jailed for spurious reasons and persecuted minorities from ethnic, cultural, religious or LGBTQ+ groups.
Also in limbo are 3,697 privately sponsored refugees who are sponsored by individuals, community- and religion-based groups.
Some are living in or have been forced to return to overcrowded refugee camps where the International Organization for Migration says COVID-19 could be catastrophic. There are about 26 million refugees worldwide.
Others are in hotels near now-empty airports, stuck in transit centres or desperately searching for shelter having already given up accommodation in advance of their cancelled departure.
Thousands of in-country refugees are also in Covid-induced limbo.
“I worry most about the single mothers and those urgent protection cases whose arrival has been suspended through no fault of own,” Friesen said.
A survey of 37 Canadian settlement societies completed on April 3 found permanent housing is the most pressing need for the 274 refugees currently in temporary accommodation.
Among the many challenges is that most settlement workers don’t have personal protective equipment.
So, with physical distancing and work-from-home directives, it’s impossible to escort clients to view rentals. Add to that, most landlords also don’t want to risk showing suites.
For five agencies, which aren’t identified in the survey, it’s so difficult that they’ve simply given up trying. For now, they are struggling to keep their clients safe in temporary situations where they often share kitchens and bathrooms with others and there is nowhere for them to self-isolate.
Worse, asked Friesen, what happens if single mothers become ill and have to either self-isolate or be hospitalized?
In B.C., Friesen contacted the Ministry of Children and Family Development for help. It has established protocols. Fortunately, they haven’t had to be used ... yet.
But one unidentified agency in the survey said it has already transferred one sick child to another province and transported another to a different city. It’s hard to imagine how frantic families in a strange country are able to cope with that.
Aside from accommodation, it’s very difficult to connect newcomers with doctors for non-covid-related reasons with so many clinics closed and doctors reassigned.
It’s also challenging to get the daily COVID updates and advice from governments and medical health officers translated into hundreds of different languages.
But that’s only the tip of a very big iceberg.
The overwhelming question is how to support tens of thousands of refugees, while keeping everyone including staff and volunteers safe,
PRE-COVID-19, staff and volunteers were often physically by newcomers’ sides setting up bank accounts, going to medical appointments, shopping, filling out myriad government forms and, of course, for the all-important language classes.
Now, agencies are scrambling to get everything online. But that requires internet connections, data plans, smartphones, computers, applications for conferencing and translators.
And for some things, it’s simply not enough.
To access various governments’ emergency programs requires refugees who came last year to file income tax returns. Last week, Friesen urged the federal government to allow settlement societies to do that on behalf of marginalized families.
“We may have to turn into a virtual H&R Block,” Friesen said. “All of the new benefits being rolled out to Canadians, these families can’t get them without filing income tax and how do you do that without a computer, low digital literacy and low literacy?”
Every month, there are also refugees transitioning from the yearlong federal support to provincial income supports. For many, that’s also impossible to navigate without help.
“This is evolving hour to hour as new issues come up,” said Friesen. “We have to remain nimble and reactive and flexible.”
So what do settlement organizations need most?
“We need it (the pandemic) to go away.”
Later, the weary Friesen emailed with a more pragmatic answer. “If any of your readers had housing leads for any of these individuals, we would be most grateful. … A Syrian family of four, an Ethiopian family of four, three individuals from Syria and Uganda.”
Immigrant Services Society of B.C. executive director Chris Friesen says the situation “is evolving hour to hour.” Refugee settlement is an essential service and he’s had little sleep lately.