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Cash-strapped B.C. organizations seek to accommodate refugee influx

A sign is seen on the United States-Canada border in Surrey, B.C. on February 16, 2017. The province has helped settle more than 1,000 refugees since January of last year.

Chris Helgren/REUTERS

British Columbia has seen a steady increase in refugee claimants, forcing cash-strapped service providers to find creative solutions to accommodate the influx and issue a public plea for assistance.

The province helped settle more than 1,000 refugees since January of last year: 725 in 2016 and 284 in the first quarter of 2017, according to new statistics from five local agencies serving refugee claimants compiled by the Immigrant Services Society of BC's Welcome Centre.

The figures compare with 459 refugee claimants in 2015, 490 in 2014 and 378 in 2013 and are an under-representation as they do not account for all refugees who enter the province. About 80 per cent enter B.C. by walking across the U.S.-Canada border at Peace Arch Park. At a joint news conference on Wednesday, agency representatives said that while such border crossings are not new, there has been a recent increase amid heightened tensions over refugees and immigration in both the United States and abroad.

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Mario Ayala, executive director at the Inland Refugee Society of BC (IRS), said some refugees have crossed into Canada citing concerns over tightening borders under the Trump administration.

"[Some] have been living in the U.S. for a long time, they have children who are Americans," he said. "But they are afraid of persecution in the U.S. With the new changes in legislation, they could be caught and returned to a country they don't want to go back to."

Mr. Ayala said his four-person organization has had to get creative to meet growing needs with stagnant resources. The IRS has reached out to private citizens, churches, shelters and even the short-term rental platform Airbnb to find temporary housing for refugees.

The majority of temporary housing sites – 65 per cent – have been in Vancouver. This was followed by New Westminster (9 per cent), Surrey (7 per cent), Burnaby (7 per cent), Abbotsford (5 per cent) and Coquitlam (3 per cent).

Asked Wednesday about Vancouver's ability to accommodate a growing number of refugees given residents' concerns over its own housing and affordability issues, Mayor Gregor Robertson said the city must accommodate both.

"We need to be building more housing for both people who are homeless and low income as well as new immigrants and refugees needing housing," Mr. Robertson said. "It certainly adds to the requirement to create more affordable housing in Vancouver and beyond, and make better use of the housing we have."

Also at Wednesday's news conference was a refugee from East Africa named Petros, who arrived in B.C. in November and whose refugee claim was approved last month.

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Petros, who did not wish to reveal his last name or home country because of fear of persecution, delivered a short but impassioned speech about arriving in Vancouver alone, with limited English skills and no money, shelter, clothing or job. He was deeply depressed, stressed and lost, he said.

"I am not the same Petros, the same person, as I was back in November, 2016," he said, crediting the agencies for restoring his physical and mental health. "I am now a different person. I am a transformed person."

The city on Wednesday announced funding of $181,220 for the five agencies: the ISSofBC, the IRS, Kinbrace Community Society, Settlement Orientation Services and the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture.

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services at ISSofBC, said he believes it is the first time a municipal government has responded directly to the recent influx of refugee claimants.

Mr. Friesen asked British Columbians who are able to provide temporary accommodations – in basement suites or spare bedrooms, for example – to contact the ISSofBC.

Meanwhile, Ottawa says 71 asylum seekers were arrested by the B.C. RCMP in March after they illegally crossed the U.S. border. There were 84 such interceptions in B.C. in February, and 46 in January.

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The federal government earlier reported the January total for B.C. as 207, but later declared that number a miscount.

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About the Author
News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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