British Columbia

B.C. immigration society welcoming refugees again after COVID-19 shut borders

With the coronavirus present in all corners of the world, welcoming government-assisted refugees to B.C. is more challenging than ever.

3 refugees arrived between April and June, compared to 202 during the same period last year

An internally-displaced Somali woman, right, is informed how to protect herself from the coronavirus at a refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Hamza Osman/International Organization for Migration (IOM) - Somalia via AP)

A Vancouver welcome centre for immigrants and refugees is once again hosting families fleeing hardship elsewhere in the world after sitting virtually empty during the summer months.

According to Statistics Canada, only three refugees arrived in B.C. between April and June compared to 202 during the same period last year.

Now, after an almost three month suspension of Canada's resettlement program due to coronavirus concerns, the Immigration Services Society of B.C., (ISS of B.C.) is helping 16 families settling in the Lower Mainland this fall.

"The whole system has had to adjust," Chris Friesen, the director of settlement services for ISS of B.C., told CBC Tuesday.

Friesen said the system began opening up again in late August when the International Organization of Migration, the inter-governmental organization that issues travel documents for refugees, reopened abroad.

New protocols

New national protocols have also been established in response to virus risks, including pre-screening before travel, the issuance of personal protective equipment for travel and a mandatory 14-day quarantine period upon arrival in Canada.

In B.C., that two weeks is spent at the ISS's B.C. welcome centre, where Friesen says some families are already waiting out the isolation period before beginning their new lives in Canada.

"They are very thankful and willing to adhere to Canadian quarantine and public health guidelines," said Friesen, adding some families have already waited decades in refugee camps.

Every family receives a cellphone and reusable face masks on arrival and has their meals provided while in isolation. After the quarantine period, ISS of B.C. staff will help connect them with permanent housing and other supports they may need.

While the process has been made more laborious because of the pandemic, Friesen says there is one silver lining due to less tourists and travellers in Metro Vancouver at the moment.

"In an ironic twist through this, we are actually able to find more accessible rental housing for these people than we could a year ago," he said.

According to Friesen, the three individuals who did make it to B.C. while most international borders were closed came from Latin America via Mexico because it was one of the only transit countries in the world refugees were able to get through this summer.

He said foreign government restrictions are still making it virtually impossible to move people from East Africa, India and parts of the Middle East.

Countries represented by incoming refugees to B.C. this fall include Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.

In 2017, the federal government set a target to admit nearly one million immigrants over the next three years and planned to welcome 340,000 economic migrants, family reunifications and refugees in 2020.

According to Friesen, there is no way that target will be met this year.

To hear Chris Friesen speak on The Early Edition about welcoming newcomers to Canada during a pandemic, tap here.

With files from The Early Edition

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