Refugees still welcome — but fewer are coming

"WATERLOO REGION — Imagine that you have been threatened and must flee your home and country. It's not safe for you to return. RELATED STORIES Timeline of refugee settlement in... Waterloo Region could be your safe haven. In the last decade, 5,444 international refugees resettled in the region after fleeing violence or oppression abroad. Although this is a refuge, it's a strange place with a new language, unfamiliar weather and different customs. You have to learn English, find an affordable place to live, find a family doctor and find work. "Settlement trauma … can be even harder," said Mira Malidzanovic, who directs programs at the Reception House in central Kitchener where many refugees spend their first weeks. Refugees bring trauma and pain with them — and then face new hardships. "The adjustment process is very difficult because they are trying to cope and at the same time they are trying to adjust to a new culture," said Eunice Valenzuela, executive director of the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support. This community has long supported refugees who by United Nations definition have a "well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion." However, fewer refugees have resettled here in recent years. And fewer are choosing to live here while seeking asylum. Last year, the region resettled 364 refugees. That's well below the annual average of 544 over the past decade. Refugee resettlements have cooled since 2007. The region was also home last year to 430 people pressing refugee claims not yet proven. That's well below the annual average of 731 over the past decade. The number of residents claiming to be refugees is on a four-year decline, according to government figures. People who work with refugees can't fully explain that decline, but point to the increasing appeal of western Canada. The government says a backlog has developed in processing refugees due to the chaos caused by Syrian civil war. Most recently, people seeking refuge have fled from violence-plagued Colombia in South America or from war-torn Iraq in the Middle East. Refugees who resettle here are a small fraction of 15,513 who arrive annually in Ontario on average. Toronto attracts far more refugees. Hamilton and London draw far more refugee claimants. Yet this community, with a long tradition of Mennonite-influenced outreach, leans quite strongly to welcoming refugees in its mix of newcomers. On average in recent years, refugees have made up 21 per cent of local immigrants, while across Canada just 11 per cent of immigrants are refugees, and in Ontario 13 per cent of immigrants are refugees. (Other immigrants come for economic opportunities or to join kin already here.) Most local refugees are selected while still abroad by the federal government or by private sponsors. Once here they are typically supported for up to a year by the government or by churches or humanitarian groups. About a third of local refugees claim asylum after landing in Canada and successfully arguing their case before a tribunal. Refugees are mobile — some leave for other cities after resettlement here. Others may relocate here from other cities. A number of Somalian refugees who resettled here later left for Alberta to find jobs. "They are a nomadic people, for them moving is not a bad thing," Malidzanovic said. The biggest recent wave has been people fleeing Iraq. Since 2008, 571 Iraqi refugees have resettled here, accounting for one in four refugees over the last five years. Since 2003 the biggest wave has been people fleeing Colombia. The region resettled 1,012 Colombian refugees in a decade, accounting for one in five refugees. In an average year, this region is home to a further 731 people who asked the independent Immigration and Refugee Board to confirm them as refugees. They claim asylum here and become temporary residents while they argue their case. For the tribunal to approve a refugee, that person must show they meet the UN definition. Or they must show that if they return home, they personally face torture, death or cruel or unusual punishment. The tribunal takes 19 months on average to rule and there's a backlog. Most who claim asylum here will not succeed. They face deportation, pending appeals and humanitarian exemptions. Since 2005, the tribunal approved 43 per cent of Ontario refugee claims it handled. This year approvals are running at 31 per cent. Local statistics aren't available, but Valenzuela estimates 40 per cent of local asylum claims succeed. Colombia is the leading homeland for residents claiming asylum, just as it is a leading country for resettled refugees. Other leading homelands for residents pursuing refugee claims include Mexico, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and El Salvador. Last year, the federal government reformed the tribunal to speed refugee determinations, and to dissuade what it says are mostly bogus claims from 37 countries that do not normally produce refugees. "Under the new system, genuine refugees fleeing persecution will receive Canada's protection much more quickly, while those with unfounded claims who seek to abuse our generous system will be removed faster," said Whitney Punchak, spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Under new rules, new refugee claims have dropped 91 per cent from countries designated as safe, the government says. Most countries the government deems safe are in Europe, but Mexico is controversially on the list. Last year, it was the homeland of 22 residents seeking to be confirmed as refugees, the second largest group after Colombians. Colombia is not on the safe country list. The Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support disputes that Mexico is safe, arguing its government is unable to protect some citizens including women facing domestic abuse. "They don't receive any protection in Mexico," Valenzuela said. "Mexico has a lot of instability, a lot of internal problems, a lot of violence." She further argues that refugee claimants are unfairly burdened by new timelines that set a tribunal hearing within 60 days. "The timeline is too fast," she said. "People come from countries and they don't speak English. People come from countries where they suffer torture, trauma and abuse. Sixty days is impossible for them to tell their story because of this trauma they are coming with." Sixty days is also not long enough for people seeking asylum to build trust with local volunteers who want to help them, she said. Last year, the federal government cut health-care coverage for some residents seeking asylum, saying it will save $100 million over five years. The government says this brings medical coverage in line with coverage for citizens. Accordingly, rejected refugee claimants or claimants from countries on the safe list must now pay their own medical bills, unless there's a risk to public health or safety. Valenzuela is dismayed by the changes, citing a woman who has a $27,000 medical bill she can't pay. Between 2008 and 2012, Waterloo Region resettled on average 479 refugees per year, down from 610 in the previous five years. Malidzanovic doubts this reflects dissatisfaction with Waterloo Region as a destination for refugees. She points instead to challenges overseas in processing refugees. The decline threatens federal funding for Reception House, where government-assisted refugees arrive from the airport and stay their first weeks. Refugee claimants dropped four straight years, to 430 present in the region last year. Valenzuela fears some who deserve asylum abandoned the tribunal process, choosing to go underground and stay undocumented. "That would be extremely bad," she said. She argues it puts them at risk of being preyed upon by unscrupulous employers or others. The average of 731 residents pursing refugee claims each year is well below the number of residents who would be seeking asylum by national or provincial rates. For example, nearby London with a similar population has 1,538 residents claiming refugee status in an average year. Hamilton is 40 per cent bigger and has 2,376 residents claiming refugee status in an average year, triple this region. Government figures rank Waterloo Region as the number 10 urban area in Canada for residents claiming asylum. This matches its rank as an urban population. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Based on the past decade, in an average year this region resettles 544 refugees who are permanent residents. This includes people selected abroad who are sponsored by the federal government or sponsored privately by local groups, and people confirmed as refugees by a tribunal after they arrive and claim asylum. Based on population, this exceeds the national rate for taking refugees by up to 41 per cent. It falls slightly below the Ontario rate for taking refugees by population. In an average year, this region is home to a further 731 residents who claimed asylum but are not yet confirmed as refugees. Foreigners become temporary residents while arguing their case before the Immigration and Refugee Board. By comparison in an average year, London has 1,538 residents claiming to be refugees, Hamilton has 2,376 and St. Catharines-Niagara has 1,218". ByJeff Outhit Source: therecord.com and Citizenship and Immigration Canada

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