B.C. refugee centre reports sharp jump in asylum seekers

March 3, 2017

By Bethany Lindsy, Vancouver Sun |

People who assist new refugees in B.C. are reporting a big jump in the number of new asylum seekers in recent months, and the vast majority are coming on foot across the U.S. border.

Between April of last year and Feb. 15, Vancouver’s Welcome Centre dealt with 1,140 refugee claimants, compared to 801 in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. About 80 per cent of those came here by crossing through Peace Arch Park or nearby, avoiding the controlled border crossings where they would be refused entry.

The facility, where refugees go to get support services like temporary housing and primary health care, had 99 new clients in January and another 84 the next month. Those are unusually high numbers, according to Chris Friesen, settlement services director for the Immigrant Services Society, which operates the Welcome Centre. In December, there were 63 new clients.

“Our waiting room today is full of refugee claimants,” Friesen said. “(The number) appears to be increasing due to a number of factors including ongoing directives by the Trump administration and the lifting of the Mexican visa requirements.”

Most of those walking across the border have been Kurdish-speaking Iraqis, including families and single men, but there have also been several young families from Afghanistan. Iraqis make up the biggest overall portion of recent new arrivals, with at least 65 over the last phree months.

But Mexicans are making up a growing segment of the Welcome Centre’s clients. Twenty-two got services there in February and seven the month before. In comparison, there were just 30 in the entire year leading up to Dec. 1, when Canada officially lifted the requirement for Mexican visitors to carry visas. Now that asylum seekers can arrive from Mexico as tourists, most make refugee claims at Vancouver International Airport.

The surge in new arrivals over the last two months has caused participation in a weekly drop-in group for refugees to increase by nearly 50 per cent.

“It is stretching our resources. … Some of the pressure points that we’re trying to address in a number of different ways include the need for immediate housing, given the rental market,” Friesen said.

“The multilingual staff is, of course, being stretched because of the sheer number of refugee claimants that are accessing support through our facility.”

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