Pandemic Borders

Re-bordering Canada’s privately sponsored refugees during the pandemic

How will sponsored refugees face the challenges of COVID-19 in the face of physical distancing and re-bordering that the pandemic brings with it?

Suzan Ilcan
15 June 2020
Rally in support of diversity, strength, and solidarity with oppressed groups in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 03, 2017.
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Picture by NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved
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COVID-19 is re-bordering Canada’s privately sponsored refugees. This re-bordering is creating new barriers, hurdles, and obstacles for those entering into and living in Canada. The former are facing travel restrictions, protracted waiting, and health risks. The latter are experiencing employment, health, and social support challenges.

Canada is one of the few countries in the world that annually offers resettlement to privately sponsored refugees. This program involves Canadian citizens and permanent residents engaging in the resettlement of refugees from abroad. Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program relies on the time-commitment and funds of faith-based communities, ethnic groups, families, and other caring associations. Private sponsors may name the refugee they wish to resettle and provide the refugee with personalized local support, usually for a one-year period. However, all settlement operations have been stalled.

Canadian government’s Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada and the International Organization for Migration suspended settlement operations

On 17 March 2020, the Canadian government’s Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) suspended settlement operations due to the coronavirus. With the closure of the Canadian border until 30 June 2020, there are continued delays in processing sponsored refugee applications internationally because Canadian embassies and visa offices, the IOM, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have witnessed operational modifications due to the coronavirus.

Those selected to be privately sponsored refugees must now wait until the Canadian border re-opens before they can commence international travel to Canada. This protracted waiting situation has left many people stranded. Some sponsored refugees have been living in or forced to return to overcrowded refugee camps. Others are waiting in hotels near airports and transit centres. Still others are searching for shelter after relinquishing accommodation prior to their cancelled departure. These already deemed refugees who have been selected for resettlement are being pushed back, which is prolonging their trauma. In these situations, they may face financial challenges, underserved accommodations, and health risks. The suspended settlement operations have also halted family reunification for those privately sponsored refugees awaiting the arrival of family members to Canada.

While sponsored refugees selected for resettlement to Canada are now blocked from entering the country, there are other privately sponsored refugees who have lived in Canada for more than one year and are experiencing the re-bordering of their lives. Since they no longer receive financial support from their sponsors, they are facing employment instability, unable to pay rent, access health care or adequate food for their families due to the coronavirus. Some are relying on their savings, child benefit payments, food banks, welfare, or financial support from family in order to survive.

Since many privately sponsored refugees are engaged in service work, they are particularly impacted as a consequence of reduced openings of several businesses due to the official ban on large gatherings in Canada. For example, some sponsored Syrian refugees who have lived in the Kitchener-Waterloo region have recently experienced unemployment. One Syrian taxi driver was unable to drive a taxi due to the coronavirus. This jobless situation created difficulties for him to pay rent and access adequate food for his family. A Syrian single-mother of three who cleans houses for low wages was unemployed for several weeks. She too has suffered from a lack of income and, until recently, relied on child benefit payments to pay household bills. A Syrian father of four was forced to close his small sewing business for two months. This situation enabled him to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), but still left him with inadequate funds to support his family.

The eligibility requirement for CERB – that the applicant should earn a minimum employment income of $5,000 in the previous year, creates challenges for those privately sponsored refugees who work intermittently or earn low wages. A representative from the Salmon Arm Refugee Group in British Columbia stated that it is “difficult and time-consuming for privately sponsored refugees to fill out forms for CERB, even with the assistance of their sponsors.” The representative stressed that privately sponsored Syrian refugees are using their child benefit payments to pay for food, clothes, and other expenditures. Yet, many other sponsored refugees have constricted options to look for other jobs and are compelled to work despite growing health risks.

In addition to their precarious employment, sponsored refugees may also face health challenges. Some privately sponsored Syrian refugees living in the Kitchener-Waterloo Region are hesitant to access health care because of their fear of contracting the virus at clinics or hospitals and infecting their family members. Due to practicing physical distancing measures, some sponsored refugees have experienced the triggering of previous mental health issues, including anxiety, solitude, or limited access to support networks.

COVID-19-related transformations will likely continue to affect privately sponsored refugees in Canada and have long-term implications

Perhaps more notably, COVID-19-related transformations will likely continue to affect privately sponsored refugees in Canada and have long-term implications. For many lower-paying industries, including those that are considered “essential” during the pandemic (e.g., sanitation, health care, food supply chains), COVID-19-related layoffs will affect many people, including women, black, racialized, and immigrant people who are often the ones holding these low-paid and precarious positions. Such layoffs will have lasting effects on these populations and on privately sponsored refugee families.

Additionally, with the fear of a second or third wave of COVID-19, we may see the closure of the Canadian border, which will again delay family reunification for privately sponsored refugees and contribute to the newcomers’ work, health, and social support challenges. These kinds of changing economic and migration situations will result in more employment uncertainties and higher levels of unease. How will sponsored refugees address these challenges? How will they foster community-building in the face of physical distancing and re-bordering that the pandemic brings with it?

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