Helping a person or family resettle in Canada after fleeing persecution and violence is a uniquely rewarding way to “welcome the stranger” and put faith into action. However, there are unfortunately many misconceptions about refugees and refugee sponsorship in Canada. We bust some of those myths here.
FACT: Refugees are fleeing for their lives.
Often the terms “refugees” and “migrants” are erroneously mixed up or used interchangeably, but there are important differences between the two groups.
Immigrants are people who make a deliberate choice to leave their country, either for economic or employment opportunities.
Refugees are people who are forced to leave their countries because they have been persecuted because of their race, gender, religion, or due to war. No one chooses to be a refugee.
To put it into perspective, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are more than 60 million people worldwide displaced due to war, violence, conflict or human rights violations. This number includes: asylum seekers, refugees registered with the UNHCR, internally-displaced persons (IDPs), and Palestinians under United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) mandate. By mid-2015, the number of refugees reached an estimated 15.1 million—its highest level in 20 years! The Syrian conflict accounts for the increase of refugees in recent years, but there are also conflicts in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, South Sudan and Ukraine, along with deteriorating conditions and increasing persecution of minority groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Myanmar and Ethiopia, just to name a few.
People fleeing these crises are so desperate they are willing to make dangerous treks over land (where they can fall victim to human trafficking) and over water (on unsafe boats through treacherous seas) to seek protection. In the recent years, many thousands of people have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean to get into Europe. For many people, the prospect of seeking safety in a European country is worth the risk of dying at sea because the alternative of staying in their country is much worse.
Furthermore, many refugees must live in refugee camps once they reach a country of asylum. These camps are often harsh living environments with limited medical and health resources as well as limited or non-existent opportunities for education or income generation. Food and water supplies are also scarce, and often there are problems with crime and security making these camps unsafe especially for women and children. Considering the conditions of these camps, it is hard to think of anyone choosing to live there. They must do so because they are desperate and cannot return to their homelands.
UNHCR Mid-Year Trends, June 2015: http://www.unhcr.org/56701b969.html
Amnesty International, “Europe’s Sinking Shame”: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/webfm_send/1345
FACT: Other countries resettle far more refugees than Canada.
It would seem that with the large number of Syrian refugees the Canadian government and private sponsors are resettling into the country that we are seeing an unprecedented number of refugees in our communities. The truth is, what Canada has taken in is comparatively low. While there are an estimated 4 million Syrian refugees who have fled their country, Canada has accepted 25,000 as Government-Assisted Refugees (GARs), and will admit tens of thousands as Privately-Sponsored Refugees (PSRs).
Additionally, the majority of the world’s refugees are hosted in the Global South. According to UNHCR, by June 2015 the top ten refugee host countries were Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Chad and Sudan.
By contrast, there are very few refugees who arrive in Canada each year. This is because Canada is difficult to get to. It is hard to obtain an entry visa, and Canada is a great distance from countries producing refugees such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Somalia, South Sudan etc.
UNHCR Mid-Year Trends, June 2015: http://www.unhcr.org/56701b969.html
FACT: Contrary to popular belief, it is not easy to get refugee protection in Canada.
There are only three ways in which refugees come to Canada:
1) Government-Assisted Refugees (GARs) are refugees who have UNHCR refugee recognition and have been approved for resettlement by Canadian visa offices abroad to be sponsored by the Canadian government. Sometimes they wait years, even decades in refugee camps before being allowed into the country.
2) Privately-Sponsored Refugees (PSRs) are refugees who are resettled to Canada by private citizens, such as groups or churches. These refugees must undergo a refugee status determination process overseas. If successful, they ware resettled to Canada. There is no guarantee they will be accepted to come to Canada. They must undergo immigration medical exams and security background checks. This process, however, is lengthy and can even take years. See visa office processing timelines here: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/information/times/index.asp
3) Refugee Claimants are asylum seekers who must go through a refugee status determination process after arriving in Canada asking to be recognized as refugees. They must undergo immigration medical exams and security background checks. If they are not found to be refugees or persons in need of protection, or if they are deemed inadmissible, they are deported from Canada.
Photo: Ismail was imprisoned and tortured in Sudan because of his ethnic background. He first escaped with his young family to Egypt, where it took three years for the family to be accepted and resettled in Canada.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/index.asp
MYTH 4: Refugees have better health benefits than Canadians.
FACT: Most refugees have the same benefits as all Canadians.
As soon as government- and privately-sponsored refugees arrive in Canada, they are permanent residents and are therefore eligible for provincial health care programs.
This is not the case for refugee claimants. They have limited Interim Federal Health Program coverage until they are accepted as refugees in Canada. Government and privately sponsored refugees also receive extended health benefits through the Interim Federal Health Program but only during the year they are being sponsored.
While it is true that some Canadians do not have access to extended health benefits, many Canadians have the option to purchase these benefits through private medical insurance provided by their employers. Moreover, Canadians on social assistance or disability can access extended health benefits provided by provincial social assistance programs.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/outside/arriving-healthcare.asp
FACT: It is difficult for refuges to find work.
When refugees arrive in Canada they do apply for jobs. At the same time, however, they are at a major disadvantage−they must learn adequate amounts of English to communicate with coworkers and clients, and employers often require Canadian work experience and references that refugees often don’t have. Often they must volunteer their time to practice conversational English and acquire Canadian references. It is a difficult few years for many refugees.
Even if they have English skills, refugees often take jobs most Canadians are less inclined to do such as janitorial services, childcare, and the food service industry. This is because they are often unable to work in their fields because their foreign credentials are not recognized. They take whatever unskilled job is available because they are desperate to provide for their families.
In addition, many resettled refugees must pay back thousands of dollars to the Canadian government for travel loans they received to pay for their flights to Canada. Refugee claimants must also pay for legal representation at their refugee hearings (if they are not eligible for Legal Aid) and hundreds of dollars for Permanent Residence applications. It is easy to see why they are willing to work hard at any job.
FACT: Refugees are hard-working people who have overcome great hardship.
The majority of refugees in Canada and abroad are educated and hard-working people whose education, profession or political opinions made them targets and resulted in their persecution. Others are from broad cross-sections of society, forced to flee from instability or war to save their lives.
In Canada, while refugees are learning English, adjusting to a new culture and climate, dealing with the loss of their loved ones and war trauma, they are working at entry-level jobs, paying taxes and contributing to the economy as consumers. They are strong people who have overcome human rights violations; they are survivors; and they are heroes.
Once refugees become more established, they contribute to the life of their communities. For instance, Albert Einstein, one of the world’s greatest scientific minds was a German refugee who fled to the USA. In Canada, the MP for the Peterborough–Kawartha Ontario riding and cabinet minister, Maryam Monsef, is a former refugee from Afghanistan. More recently, there are many reports of former refugees “paying it forward” and helping other refugees. You can read about these stories here:
Photo: Tsige* (second from right) was imprisoned and tortured in her home country because of her ethnic background. Just days after arriving in Canada she enrolled in school and was looking for volunteer opportunities in her new community.
*not her real name
Keep It Real, University of Pittsburg: http://www.pitt.edu/~sorc/keepitreal/RefugeeFacts.html
FACT: There are many ways you can help!
It is an unfortunate truth that there are many refugee crises in the world. The main reason why people become refugees is because of situations beyond their control, like war, genocide, persecution based on ethnicity, gender or religion. These are situations that are political and on a large scale, and require much time and political power to resolve.
However, that doesn’t mean one person can’t make a difference. Even the smallest deed can have a major impact in the lives of refugees.
Just by being aware and concerned about the refugee crisis is important because that’s what causes people to take action. You can take action in many ways by:
- Educating yourself and others about the global refugee crisis and refugee settlement issues
- Befriending refugees in your community
- Making We Care kits and blankets to send overseas to refugee camps
- Donating to refugee relief agencies like CLWR
- Being a refugee sponsor in Canada
- Praying for refugees and peaceful resolution to conflict areas