COVID-19 challenges refugee work

The Rafeeh family, originally from Syria, waits to welcome Syrian refugees at Toronto’s Pearson airport in 2015. Photo: Stacey Newman/Shutterstock
The Rafeeh family, originally from Syria, waits to welcome Syrian refugees at Toronto’s Pearson airport in 2015. Photo: Stacey Newman/Shutterstock
By on December 1, 2021

The pandemic has dealt a massive blow to refugee sponsorship in Canada—but there’s some hope things will get easier soon both for those who hope to make Canada their home and those who help them get here, say some Anglican refugee assistance workers.

Tony Davis, refugee sponsorship coordinator with the diocese of British Columbia, says trying to sponsor refugees in the time of COVID-19 has meant a “roller coaster” of challenges.

The pandemic has put many practical limitations on churches’ ability to sponsor, he says. Closed churches mean fewer donations, and the events congregations used to rely on to raise money—church dinners, picnics and yard sales— have been made nearly impossible by COVID-19. Meanwhile, the federal government’s Blended Visa Office Referred Program (BVOR), with which private sponsors (church congregations, for example), used to partner to share costs, has been paused since the beginning of the pandemic. Before March 2020, BVOR provided roughly 40 per cent of the settlement costs in these partnerships; now the private sponsors have had to raise all the money themselves.

“People are requiring a longer period of time to raise the funds,” says Davis. “I don’t think the pandemic has changed people’s enthusiasm, but it has complicated their lives.”

There are 82 million displaced people around the globe, including 26.4 million refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Canada has welcomed more than one million refugees since 1980, and in 2019, more than 30,000 refugees settled in Canada—the most of any country. Last year, Canada planned on welcoming even more, but when COVID-19 closed borders, the wave of refugees became a trickle, with only 9,200 arriving, according to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website.

Seeing the challenges, the diocese of British Columbia reduced sponsorship applications for 2021 by 40 per cent—but numbers seem likely to be even lower. “We’ve been told not to exceed 100 [refugees],” Davis said in a September interview with the Journal. “Right now, we’re at 45.”

Davis says he still receives two to three calls a week about sponsorship—mostly families looking to bring other family members to Canada—“and we have to say, we’ll take your information but we have to put you on the waitlist for 2022.”

He says six years ago, many Syrian refugees came over through the BVOR. “That encouraged people,” says Davis. “I think people are anticipating that maybe the government will come up with a program similar to that. But we’re really not sure what’s going to happen.”

In Canadian society as a whole, changing attitudes toward immigration, plus concern about the spread of COVID-19, make it unlikely that levels of refugee sponsorship will return to what they were before, he says.

An Afghan family in India takes part in a protest requesting refugee status there or elsewhere, Aug. 24. “If we take a look at the world situation, there’s going to be more displaced people,” Townshend says. Photo: Pradeep Guars/Shutterstock

Restrictions have also made things harder for the refugees themselves, says Jane Townshend, refugee coordinator for the diocese of Huron. Visa offices have been in lockdown mode, or not operating at full capacity, slowing precious paperwork needed to travel. Church offices and embassies have been closed or working at reduced capacity, meaning documents can’t be signed. Travel allowances and border closures have in some cases been unpredictable. And there are stories of families selling their belongings, leaving their homes and arriving at the airport, only to discover they no longer have a flight.

“It’s tragic,” Townshend says. “They’ve sold everything, or given it away, because they were leaving…. If they came from refugee camps, they lost their space. Or if they had an apartment, that’s gone.”

Once refugees are given the all-clear to travel, more plans must be made for their arrival. Refugees often used to stay with family once they arrived, but things are different now. When they land in Canada, they stay in government-authorized accommodation for their first three nights, while they wait for the results of another COVID-19 test.

After their test, they can be taken to the place they will be living, or to a hotel, where they must quarantine for 14 days. Sponsors must have a quarantine plan, which includes where they will be staying, contact information, and how they will be supported during lockdown. Having to cover those 14 days in a hotel adds an additional expense to the sponsor, and refugees are basically left alone for their first two weeks in a new country.

Townshend says it can be difficult to tell refugees not to visit family during their quarantine period. “Imagine saying, I know you haven’t seen your wife in five years. You haven’t seen your kids. But don’t go see them. You can’t hug them.”

Other practical difficulties include registering for English language classes that have been shut down or moved online. People often go to libraries to access computers and wi-fi, but they’re closed. Settlement services that help with filling out forms, handling mental stress, trauma and other needs have been overwhelmed by people and trying to do things online, Townshend says. Kids’ English is not improving as quickly because schools have been closed. And driving people to appointments and being able to accompany them inside, or sitting separately is stressful.

“There’s an immense amount of problem-solving that has gone on,” she says.

Townshend says when the Syria crisis hit, Canada rushed to bring over refugees. Today—and rightfully so, she says—accountability has increased, and so has the amount of paperwork. Any funds given to refugees must be in forms that can be documented, such as cheques or e-transfer—another hiccup for immigrants who may have only operated in cash, have language barriers, and likely no bank account.

A heightening of anti-immigration sentiment among some people in recent years has also made refugee sponsorship different.

“What was not acceptable to say in everyday life became acceptable to say. A lot of people challenged the idea of refugees coming over,” says Townshend, noting the tragedy in London, Ont., where a Muslim family was murdered.

She says cases in her diocese began to decline as soon as the pandemic began and have dropped dramatically. As this story was being written, Townshend was estimating around 40 people would arrive in her diocese by the end of 2021—about one quarter of a typical year. “Cases are people. And there’s some guilt. It’s weighed heavily on us.”

Meanwhile, she says, demand is likely to increase.

“If we take a look at the world situation, there’s going to be more displaced people. Some of our concern is whether we’re going to be able to rejuvenate that parish base to be able to go forward,” she says.

“But the work has been going on very quietly. [I’m encouraged by] the perseverance of it all.”

Despite the challenges, Townshend says there are a number of parishes going forward with their plans for sponsorship, looking forward to the BVOR, or something similar, re-starting—something she says would be extremely good news for parishes. She says sponsors are always excited and heavily involved with the families they bring over, standing in line with them, driving them around, buying a crib and welcome gifts.

“Anglicans across Canada have something to be very proud of. We help each other and work collaboratively,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

—With files by Tali Folkins

Correction: Tony Davis’s name was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this story. The Anglican Journal apologizes for the error.

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