Vul­ner­a­ble refugees in limbo due to pan­demic

With sup­port work­ers in iso­la­tion, new ar­rivals left in be­wil­der­ing spot

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - DAPHNE BRAMHAM dbramham@post­media.com twit­ter: @bramham_­daphne

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.”

GERRY KAHRMANN/FILES

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.

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