‘Being a refugee is a circumstance, it’s not a choice’

June 20, 2018

By Denise Ryan, Vancouver Sun |

If Sara Maria Gomez Lopez could do one thing, it would be to end the stigma associated with the word “refugee”.

“Being a refugee is a circumstance, it’s not a lifestyle. It’s not a choice,” said Gomez Lopez, a refugee from Mexico who arrived in Canada via Blaine, Wash., in 2012.

On the same day that Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out against the forced separation of asylum-seeking families in the U.S., Gomez Lopez wanted people to remember that irrespective of changes in policy, the circumstance of being a refugee almost always separates families. “For every refugee separated from their family, their language, their home, there is trauma.”

Gomez Lopez was on hand on Wednesday as the Immigrant Services Society marked World Refugee Day with the release of a report, Refugee Claimants in B.C.: Understanding Irregular Arrival Trends.

ISS also announced it is piloting of a two-way texting tool, newcomer.info, that will help ISS provide information to, and communicate with, asylum seekers throughout B.C.

The texting tool was developed by ISS in conjunction with the Vancouver Community Network which also developed StreetMessenger, a communication service for the homeless. ISS hopes the innovative tool will help manage the increased demand for services.

Chris Friesen, the director of settlement services at ISS, said that irregular arrivals in B.C. have increased, with 67 per cent of asylum-seekers arriving at a land-based crossing, either by walking across the Canada-U.S. border (59 per cent) or by entering one of Canada Border Services Agency’s land-based ports of entry (eight per cent).

Most respondents reported spending less than a year in the U.S., an indication, said Friesen, that recent asylum seekers entered the U.S. with a legal visa for the express purpose of continuing on to Canada.

Factors influencing the arrival of asylum seekers in B.C. include human rights abuses, deteriorating conditions in their home countries, changes in Canadian policy such as the lifting of the Mexican visa requirement, and the current U.S. administration, said Friesen.

Friesen said the influx has brought a 76-per-cent increase in refugees seeking services at ISS.

For the survey, ISS spoke to 311 refugee claimants, or 26 per cent of the total who arrived in B.C. between October 2016 and the end of December 2017.

Respondents were overwhelmingly young, well-educated, male and able to speak English. Seventy-two per cent had education beyond high school, and 61 per cent had university or graduate degrees.

“We are dealing with a population that has high human capital,” said Friesen. The top three sources of employment in their countries of origin were education, management, and professionals such as doctors and engineers.

Respondents came from 46 different countries, with the majority from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, a change from 2013 when the top three source countries were China, Colombia and Honduras.

Challenges for refugee claimants include finding housing, with 27 per cent reporting they spend between half and three-quarters of their monthly household income on housing, and 24 per cent spend more than 75 per cent of their income on housing.

“De-skilling” was another issue, with close to 90 per cent of respondents no longer working in their chosen professions, but finding employment in lower-skilled positions in construction, manufacturing, service or food industries.

Major themes that emerged in open-ended questions include the refugees’ gratitude and thanks, said Friesen. However, the complex legal challenges for claimants, delays in hearings and, after a successful asylum bid, the long waits to obtain permanent resident status, and long processing times for work permits all contribute to negative impacts on mental health and delays to family reunification.

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