Don't push rosy portrayals of refugee crisis response, Steven Zhou urges

The danger of portraying a difficult and complicated process as a one-dimensional feel-good moment or story is that it indirectly encourages complacency among the wider community, Steven Zhou writes.

Feel-good stories indirectly encourage complacency among Canadians, columnist writes

Syrian refugee Osama (left) holds his daughter as they as they arrive with other families at Toronto's Pearson Airport last month. Feel-good stories about refugee arrivals aren't helpful because they inspire complacency, Steven Zhou says. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Canada's reaction to the refugee crisis has turned into a feel-good public relations coup for the Liberal Party, exemplified by photographs of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeting throngs of exhausted Syrian refugees at Pearson Airport. It looked as if the Liberal administration, joined, in a rare display of cross-partisan solidarity, by its opposition critics, was well on its way to addressing a global problem in a highly substantive way — and the story ends there.

But now that several thousand Syrian refugees have landed, much of the actual mechanics of effectively and humanely settling them have proven to be mired in bureaucratic limbo and a lack of planning. It's a disservice to the refugees in need, along with Canadians in general, to have these challenges be overshadowed by superficially optimistic representations of the situation.

Refugees who aren't receiving family-based, private sponsorship are finding themselves in an uncertain transitional period. Sponsorship groups are seriously overwhelmed but have extended a helping hand to the federal government, which is still trying to establish a long-term plan to handle the issue. Yet Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has not allowed these organizations to take government-sponsored refugees off of their hands for the time being.

Many are now familiar with the Toronto hotel that has played host to some 600 or so Syrian refugees (some hotel guests have been evicted to make room for more refugees), dozens of whom have been reported to say, after weeks in the hotel, that they're not getting much help and would rather go back to their refugee camps.

This is a startling statement, but it's become more and more apparent that the government is finding it difficult to come up with an efficient way to couple refugees with the support available. This is primarily true for government-sponsored refugees, who constitute just under 8,000 individuals out of the 13,764 who have arrived since last November, some under the auspices of the previous Tory regime.

A Syrian family sits outside their tent at a refugee camp in Lebanon in January. (Bilal Hussein/The Associated Press)
Volunteers at the hotel in Toronto have said to several news outlets that many refugees, who understand no English and are facing down their first winter, have experienced difficulties with getting basic medical attention and support. The same can be said with respect to financial matters, as government-assisted refugees have not yet received their cheques from the government. For example, adult government-assisted refugees who are temporarily staying in hotels are given $10 a day for food, while a child gets a one-time $50 stipend for the entire duration of his/her stay, no matter how long. Considering many of these hotels are located in neighbourhoods with a rather high standard of living, such allowances suggest many families have to exercise a rather high level of frugality.

Followup by community needed

The danger of portraying a difficult and complicated process as a one-dimensional feel-good moment or story is that it indirectly encourages complacency among the wider community, as if everything is already being taken care of. Instead, this is a process that demands a serious level of participation and followup by community members, regardless of whether they're actual sponsors. Even sponsors can't have refugees live in their houses forever. It will take time for the government and sponsorship groups to devise an adequate framework to resettle entire families, and the entire process is one that demands more guided volunteerism and followup, not less.

Over 10,000 more refugees are expected to arrive in Canada by the end of this month. Settlement agencies in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa have asked the federal government to slow down the rate of their arrival, but the Liberals have refused to do so thus far. Some of these agencies are working off of government contracts and have already exceeded their temporary housing capacity. Moreover, it's not just the transitional period that's challenging.

Government-sponsored refugees will more or less be on their own once permanent housing is found for them. They'll be given a monthly cheque to help sustain themselves, but there's no long-term plan by the government to actually integrate new arrivals into the workforce and beyond. Given this reality, it seems that local communities ought to step up to the plate and fill in the gaps. They won't be encouraged to do so if they're not shown the challenges this government is facing when it comes to responding effectively to the crisis.

Steven Zhou is a writer in Toronto.