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Refugees and newcomers to Canada struggling to resettle amid COVID-19 restrictions

On March 17, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, any travel related to refugee resettlement would be suspended, including government-sponsored and privately-sponsored refugees to Canada. 

The suspension of resettlement, along with stay-at-home orders and border shutdowns, have important ramifications for refugees who, by definition, have been forced to leave their home countries to find safety. With many refugees remaining displaced for years in camps or urban settings, resettlement is a vital tool that allows families and individuals to find stability in a new country. Canada, a global leader in resettlement, was set to bring in over 30,000 refugees in 2020. However, there have been less than 10,000 refugees resettled worldwide so far this year. 

Though some right-wing outlets have suggested that refugees pose too much of an economic burden, research suggests that countries tend to actually benefit economically once refugees are resettled. Not only that, but Canada may be ignoring its international obligations by turning away asylum seekers who arrive at the border seeking safety. 

Earlier policies in response to COVID-19 barred entry to all refugee claimants attempting to come to Canada, but a more recent policy has allowed for certain exceptions: some claimants can enter Canada from the United States at official border crossings before being made to quarantine for fourteen days in hotel rooms reserved by the Canada Border Services Agency. This exemption only applies under specific conditions, such as when claimants have close family in Canada or face the death penalty in their home country. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, asylum claimants were also able to enter at unauthorized border crossings, such as the Quebec-New York crossing at Roxham Road, and make an asylum claim once in Canada. Now, those entering at unauthorized border crossings are being turned away and sent back to the U.S. where they risk being deported back to their home country.

The Canadian Council for Refugees has called the new ban “wrong and unnecessary,” and Amnesty International has said that the measure violates the rights of refugees seeking safety, citing Canada’s obligations under the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Advocates have even argued that the Canadian government could face legal consequences for violating “non-refoulement,” the principle that individuals cannot be returned to a country where they will face persecution or torture.

Reverend Scott Jones, the executive director of Micah House, a refugee shelter in Hamilton, Ont., says he’s seen a noticeable reduction in the number of referrals his organization handles, from between 60 and 70 in a typical month to between five and 10 since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Micah House offers short-term stays to refugee and asylum claimants, as well as assisting them with resettlement and connecting them to other services.

But services for refugees and asylum seekers who are already in Canada have also been restricted. The Canadian government has instructed resettlement service providers to only “focus on providing critical settlement and resettlement services,”, and in-person appointments with the Immigration and Refugee Review Board of Canada — which determine permanent residency claims for some refugees — have been temporarily suspended.

For now, guests at Micah House are in limbo, as many of the aspects of resettlement, like beginning school and accessing housing, remain out of reach. But, so far at least, they’ve been able to stay healthy. With more than 600 cases of COVID-19 in Hamilton, Micah House has managed to avoid any positive cases in their facility. Refugees in other centres have not been as fortunate. 

I do know, at least a couple of our clients are suffering pretty greatly because of this. They already have barriers of language, barriers of culture, they don't have access to family.— Reverend Scott Jones

Willowdale Welcome Centre in Toronto had the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the city’s shelter system, which includes 72 other facilities. More than a dozen staff members and 185 clients at Willowdale tested positive for COVID-19, according to reporting from the Toronto Star. So far, no deaths related to the outbreak have been reported. 

Beyond just the health effects of COVID-19, refugees in Canada also need to cope with the psychological impact of living in isolation. Being in a new country — sometimes without the ability to speak English or French — and away from their support systems, often after having lived through considerable trauma, refugees are already in a vulnerable position. Add to that lockdown measures and isolation in an unfamiliar place, and the effects can be even more severe.

“I do know, at least a couple of our clients are suffering pretty greatly because of this. They already have barriers of language, barriers of culture, they don’t have access to family,” says Jones. “There’s a level of discomfort for them that’s added on.” 

Not only does Canada have a legal and, arguably, moral responsibility to assist these groups, the country also stands to benefit from doing so. Contrary to some right-wing discourse that casts refugees as an economic burden, research shows that newcomers actually have a net positive benefit economically. 

One recent study tracking newcomers over 30 years across 15 countries in Western Europe found that increases in migration “significantly increase per capita GDP, reduce unemployment, and improve the balance of public finances,” and that “the additional public expenditures, which is usually referred to as the ‘refugee burden,’ is more than outweighed by the increase in tax revenues.” 

Newcomers to Canada, says Jones, are more likely to be essential workers, especially during the first few years after they arrive, making them even more vulnerable to the risks surrounding COVID-19. “They’re working at slaughterhouses, they’re working in fields, they’re working in greenhouses, they’re taxi drivers, and so forth. It’s a group of people that have one more area of marginalization,” he says. 

As the pandemic continues, Canada has the opportunity to provide more resources to this underserved group and uphold its international obligations. Meanwhile, the situation for refugees around the world remains uncertain: the UN has stated that it will lift resettlement travel restrictions “as soon as prudence and logistics permit.” Currently, no plans have been announced.