Vancouver's homeless refugees stuck in limbo

Jarvis, a well-groomed soft spoken man in his late 30’s, sits in the lobby of the Inland Refugee Society in downtown Vancouver.

After fleeing death threats in his home country of South Africa in October of this year, he has traveled halfway around the world to find a safer life.

A little-known fact is many refugees will end up being homeless some time after their arrival in Canada.“I had to leave my children behind. Their mother is dead and now I do not know where I will sleep tonight”.  

A grief-stricken man, he sits alone in the corridor.  It would be easy to walk past him on the street and be totally unaware that before coming to the Inland Refugee Society in Vancouver for help, he spent nights sleeping in one of Vancouver’s local parks, exposed to the elements. 

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has three categories for refugees. Resettled refugees are persons outside of Canada whom the Canadian government has recognized are in a country where they fear sexual, ethnic or religious harassment or even state-sanctioned torture. The resettled refugee is provided temporary accommodation by the Canadian government upon arrival in Canada and CIC will ensure that the basic needs of the refugees are met during their first days in Canada.

A second category of the refugee system in Canada is the Asylum Claimant. These claimants are not from countries which the Canadian government has deemed to be an immediate danger and will decide at a refugee hearing if the person’s life is at risk should they return to their home country. Asylum claimants arrive in Canada and then declare themselves as refugees to Canada Immigration. The Canadian government will then have a refugee hearing for the asylum claimant. These refugee hearings will decide if the person must return to their home country or will be granted refugee status and be allowed to stay in Canada.

The hearing can take up to one year to be carried out and in the meantime asylum claimants can apply for a work permit and receive emergency medical care. In 2010, there were 23,110 asylum claims in Canada. Of this number, according to Canada Immigration statistics, 612 were in the Vancouver area in 2010. The third grouping of refugees in Canada are the privately sponsored refugees. Generally sponsored by religious organizations, ethnocultural groups or humanitarian organizations, the privately sponsored refugee is provided with care, lodging, settlement assistance and support for the time of their sponsorship period, generally 12 months, until the refugee attends their claim hearing.

Fearing for his life due to his religious beliefs, Jarvis made a quick exit to Canada where he arrived at Montréal-Trudeau airport as an asylum claimant and was told by Canada Immigration it may be several months for his refugee hearing could be held.

“When I arrived in Canada I was not aware of the prices or the value of the Canadian dollar,” he explains with a tremble in his voice. After arriving in Montreal, Jarvis stayed in a hotel but found it very difficult to communicate with no French language skills.

On the street, he befriended some locals and they explained that it may be better for him to try Toronto or Vancouver where English is commonly spoken. Jarvis was quickly depleting the modest savings he had brought with him from South Africa. A plane trip later he arrived in Vancouver from Montreal. After his arrival, Jarvis quickly realized how dire his situation was becoming. 

“I was walking the streets of Vancouver and came across a church. The people there told me about organizations that could help me find a place to stay and what I should do next”, he explains. “They told me to go to Inland Refugee Society for help”. A non-profit, non-governmental organization, the Inland Refugee Society helps refugee claimants in Vancouver to find a place to stay either temporarily or permanently.

After arriving at the Inland Refugee Society, they referred Jarvis to Immigrant Services Society of BC- Welcome House in downtown Vancouver. Inland Refugee society paid for his stay at the Welcome House until Jarvis could receive welfare. “The problem is that with the shelters full and the fact that the refugees cannot claim welfare for 2 to 3 weeks, they are left with a period of time when there is no money and sometimes no access to shelter”, says Refugee Services Director Mario Ayala of the Inland Refugee Society.

The City of Vancouver has recognized the problem of temporary housing for refugees and has provided funding since 1986 to the Inland Refugee Society and other similar organizations that assist refugees in an attempt to bridge this gap in shelter for the newly-arrived refugee claimants. “We know the majority of refugee claimants are legitimate and we want to help them settle and become part of the community”, says Baldwin Wong, Social Planner for the City of Vancouver. “Refugees are for the most part well-educated people who are survivors and can contribute to our city”.

According to Refugee Services Director Mario Ayala of the Inland Refugee Society, the problem of homelessness affects refugee families, single mothers and fathers who arrive in Canada with their children. They can go to organizations like the Red Cross that helps refugees by referring them to different non government organizations, including Inland Refugee Society, for them to get support. In some cases the Red Cross helps with economic support such as paying for one night in a hotel only in emergency cases.

 With the lack of short-term shelter and few resources available to asylum claimants, this puts many refugees in the vulnerable and often frightening reality to seek shelter outside. After fleeing their countries in fear and being in an unfamiliar country, this can be an unbearable stress to an already worrying situation.

As Jarvis ponders his future, his eyes well up with tears. Still processing the trauma of leaving his home country and leaving his children behind, Jarvis is shaking as he speaks.

“I don’t know anything about my future in Canada now”, he says.

He adds, lowering his voice:

“I must take everything as it comes. I can’t think about my future now”.


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