Burundian refugees increasingly calling Ottawa home

Refugee claimants fleeing persecution in Burundi are increasingly choosing to settle in bilingual Ottawa, according to data obtained by CBC News.

Claimants fleeing violence in Burundi choosing bilingual Ottawa over Montreal, Toronto

Diane Tuyishime came to Ottawa as a refugee in 2016. Today she works at Refugee 613, where she helps other newcomers settle into their new home. (Sandra Abma/CBC News)

When Diane Tuyishime and her husband arrived in Ottawa in the spring of 2016, they carried all their worldly possessions in their arms.

"When I came I had three suitcases, and I arrived in the country with a six-month-old," she recalled.

They also carried with them an abundance of relief: the young family had just escaped the brutal violence and political persecution that had overtaken their home country of Burundi.

They're part of a growing wave of Burundian families claiming refugee status in Canada, and choosing Ottawa as the place to start anew.

According to Immigration and Refugee Board data obtained by CBC, more than 400 Burundians filed refugee claims in Ottawa between 2013 and 2017, with 180 of those claims coming last year. During that period, more claimants from Burundi landed in Ottawa than in any other Canadian city.

"They are leaving for the safety. They're scared for their lives, so they must leave everything behind," said Tuyishime.

In 2015, Burundi descended into violence, leaving hundreds dead after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to run for a third term.
Burundi descended into civil unrest in 2015, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. (Associated Press)

According to the International Criminal Court, "at least 1,200 persons were allegedly killed, thousands illegally detained, thousands reportedly tortured and hundreds disappeared." More 400,000 displaced Burundians are now residing in refugee camps in surrounding countries.

Tuyishime, whose sister-in-law was already living in Ottawa and provided a place for the family to stay, knows they're among the lucky ones. She's fluent in two languages: French, the official language of Burundi, and English. 

Today she works as a communications specialist at Refuge 613, a local coalition of organizations serving newcomers like her.

In the last four years, more than 400 refugees from Burundi have come to Canada and chose to settle in Ottawa. 2:26

No place to go

The situation for most Burundians arriving in the city is more challenging.

According to Louisa Taylor, director of Refugee 613, a shortage of shelter space and lack of affordable housing leaves many couch surfing with friends, and even sleeping in 24-hour fast food restaurants.

Taylor said that while Syrian refugees have grabbed the headlines lately, community agencies like hers have been dealing with a steady increase of arrivals from Burundi since 2015.

"More and more people walking in the door were from Burundi, and they needed services. The single greatest need was for housing, emergency shelter, and a lot of them are being turned away right now," Taylor said.

That also means a surge in the need for resettlement services in French.

"It's definitely being felt on the ground," Taylor said.

At Carty House, a residence for single women in Ottawa, service coordinator Louise Ebeltoft said seven of the shelter's 10 beds are occupied by Burundian refugees, as they have been for the last couple of years.
Justine Nkurunziza fled her homeland in 2016. Today she teaches English and French to government workers. (Sandra Abma/CBC News)

Why Ottawa?

Ottawa is an attractive location for the refugees because many already have family here. 

I wanted a place where I would not feel like a stranger, like a foreigner. I wanted to feel like home.- Justine Nkurunziza

Justine Nkurunziza came to Ottawa in the fall of 2016. Today she teaches English and French at Knowledge Circle, a language training school.

"Burundians like being in family. We like being together," Nkurunziza said. "I wanted a place where I would not feel like a stranger, like a foreigner. I wanted to feel like home."

Nkurunziza's sentiments echoed those of other Burundians, who said Ottawa's reputation as a bilingual city also made it a draw for parents with young children. 

"We cherish our French, but we'd also like to add English to our French. We really want to polish our English and that attracted many parents to Ottawa," Nkurunziza said.
Refugee 613 director Louisa Taylor, left, and communications specialist Diane Tuyishime, right, say the resettlement agency is seeing an increase in refugees from Burundi. (Sandra Abma/CBC News)

Who is coming?

Immigration lawyer Jacques Bahimanga, who is originally from Burundi, said many of the refugees left behind good jobs when they fled their country, and see Ottawa as a place where they can eventually resume their careers.

Those who did not flee are in jail, or they are killed.- Jacques Bahimanga

"Those who are coming, most of them are educated, or people who have means," Bahimanga said.

Bahimanga said it was the educated classes — professionals, government workers, journalists and students — who opposed the president, and it was not safe for them to remain in the country.

 "Those who did not flee are in jail, or they are killed," Bahimanga said.
Lawyer Jacques Bahimanga says many of the Burundians who reach Ottawa are well educated, and left good jobs behind. (Sandra Abma/CBC News)

Acceptance rate growing

Once they arrive, asylum seekers submit a refugee claim to the Canadian government. The wait after can be long and stressful, with some waiting six months just to get an initial hearing.

"It can be incredibly frustrating, and it slows down integration," Taylor said. "It's very stressful and emotionally difficult."

According to the data obtained by CBC, the overall acceptance rate for refugee claimants is growing. Across the country the proportion of successful claims is at a 27-year high. 

In Ottawa, the percentage of successful claims nearly doubled in five years, from 48 per cent in 2013 to 84 per cent in 2017. Of claimants citing Burundi as the country of persecution, 85 per cent were accepted in Ottawa over the same period.


Disclaimer and methodology:

The data used for this story was obtained from the Immigration and Refugee Board through an Access to Information request. It includes 89,517 claims that were finalized, or concluded, between Jan. 1, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2017.

This data refers to refugee claimants, or individuals who have made a claim in Canada for refugee protection. It does not include government — or privately sponsored refugees.

The data refers to IRB decisions and not necessarily individuals. The Immigration and Refugee Board sometimes makes more than one decision for the same individual.

The country and cause of persecution refers to what a claimant initially tells an immigration or border services officer when they first make a claim. The information can change as a claim progresses through the system and those changes are not captured in this data.

Acceptance rates are calculated by dividing the number of positive claims by the total number of positive and negative claims. It does not include abandoned, withdrawn, or administrative claims, or cases in which the claimant died before the case could be decided.

To see our full analysis and download the raw data, go to https://github.com/taracarman/Refugee_Claims