Seeking support from Ottawa for a Refugee Claimant Reception Centre

James Grunau (right) and Loren Balisky with NDP MP for Vancouver East Jenny Kwan; she is co-vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.

James Grunau and Loren Balisky have created thriving communities locally (Journey Home and Kinbrace), which share housing – and lives – with refugee claimants.

Last week they travelled to Ottawa to appear before the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, which is seeking recommendations on how the government can improve its services to newcomers to Canada.

Grunau and Balisky co-chair a Housing Working Group for the Multi-Agency Partnership (MAP), which involves more than 40 representatives of both governmental and non-governmental refugee claimant serving agencies.

One of MAP’s major goals – certainly not the only one – is the development of a Refugee Claimant Reception Centre, where new arrivals would receive housing and support during their first few weeks in Canada. They are seeking public and private funding, including from the federal government.

Following are James Grunau’s speaking notes as he addressed the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa February 6. 

James Grunau speaking before the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (screen capture from video).

Honorable Chair, Vice-Chairs and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today and for the work you are doing on behalf of newcomers to our country. I am James Grunau, the Executive Director of Journey Home Community, a refugee claimant-serving organization in Metro Vancouver.

The current study underway on Settlement Services Across Canada is a very important activity and my colleague, Loren Balisky from Kinbrace Community Society, and I are grateful to have the chance to provide input into this study.

Just over a year ago the International Affordability Survey indicated that Vancouver was the least affordable city for housing in North America, making housing unbelievably difficult for the 2,300 asylum claimants who have been arriving annually. Unlike for government or privately sponsored refugees, refugee claimants have no one to welcome them on arrival.

As a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, Canada is living into its international obligation to provide protection and a refugee hearing but also has an obligation to help asylum claimants access basic human needs upon arrival.

For a combined 33 years, Journey Home Community and Kinbrace Community Society have been stepping into that gap by providing a wrap-around plan for housing, support and accompaniment for these new arrivals. We have learned some things in our work.

First, in living with and assisting refugee claimants for all these years, we understand the sector and have designed communities that have been effective in helping them integrate well.

Secondly, asylum claimants arrive with incredible skills, education, professional and business backgrounds and a strong desire to move forward with their lives and make a difference in their communities, just the kind of new Canadians we hope for. With a little assistance upfront, we can set them up for success and help them become strongly contributing members of our communities.

Today we come with some community-based solutions for how we can change the current reality into a cohesive plan for these new arrivals. Our organizations are part of Vancouver’s Multi-Agency Partnership, which is a network of some 40 agencies with non-profits, business and all levels of government including the IRCC [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada], IRB [Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada] and CBSA [Canada Border Services Agency].

We meet monthly and the focus of the network is exclusively asylum claimants. There is a strong spirit of collaboration and goodwill. Last May we convened a housing forum in Metro Vancouver with a focus on creative solutions for housing for asylum claimants and we had an amazing day as over 60 people met representing the groups just mentioned.

From that forum we developed an Action Plan and a Housing Working Group which my colleague, Loren, and I co-chair. As we have begun to follow-up on these solutions we have experienced an incredible spirit of cooperation and innovation from multiple stakeholders in the community.

Our vision is that newly arriving asylum claimants would experience a cohesive approach for support along the whole housing continuum from arrival to something more permanent and that no refugee claimant is without supported housing.

The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (screen capture from video).

Our immediate dream is that we develop a Refugee Claimant Reception Centre – a landing place for new arrivals where they could receive housing, orientation and support for the first few weeks of their journey and then supported pathways out of the Centre into the wider community. Such a dream is garnering strong community interest and stakeholder support. It will take all levels of government and private funding and we have begun to see such support coalesce in Vancouver.

Allow me to read a short excerpt from a support letter of one stakeholder, BC Housing, British Columbia’s crown corporation for social housing. This is from one of the Associate Vice President’s of BC Housing and I quote,

It was a pleasure meeting with you a number of weeks back to discuss Journey Home Community’s desire to develop a Reception Centre for Refugee Claimants and housing as part of this vision. We would very much like to commence exploring suitable housing options for these individuals and to that end we may be able to offer some program funding to achieve this. . .

BC Housing will be requesting Journey Home Community to approach and garner partner assistance from municipalities, the Federal government and other sources to create as much equity as possible for this housing project.

Additional interested parties include three churches with possible available land, private investors and a significant foundation. We have experienced an incredible spirit of cooperation from multiple stakeholders in Metro Vancouver. 

A few weeks ago Journey Home was able to assist an asylum claimant father who had arrived in Vancouver with four young children under the age of four. He was wandering the streets of Vancouver on a winter night with four young children searching for help after he had run out of funds for hotel space. Our church partner volunteer had lost touch with the father but had left her phone number with the hotel in case he called back. Fortunately he did call back and they were able to connect and bring him to the house for a safe night’s rest but not without considerable stress for the father.

Or I think of the family we were notified of about a year and a half ago. The family arrived with a father, pregnant mother and two young children. They were split up between two shelters – men’s and women’s – and not allowed to visit each other in the shelters. Again we were able to provide a housing unit and reunite the family.

These situations should not happen in Canada and they don’t have to! Providing some basic level of compassionate care for newly arriving asylum claimants is neither a partisan issue nor a political issue. It is a human and moral issue and Canada can respond.

We are encouraged with the announcement last week of federal funding becoming available for housing costs for refugee claimants.

We recommend that the federal government join us in this opportunity to forge a new way for asylum claimant arrivals. We recommend that a new approach to include a Reception Centre be jointly funded by government and private funding and that the federal government support our plan and prove its viability in Metro Vancouver.

This kind of Centre is both transferable and scalable for other regions. Journey Home Community, in collaboration with the Multi-Agency Partnership, stands poised and ready to move forward in Metro Vancouver – will you partner with us?

As this approach to assist every newly arriving asylum claimant continues to gain momentum in Vancouver, we urge you to lend your approval as the idea comes across your pathway; better still would you look for ways to approve and support such a plan? As we end, may I say we would love to engage with any of you on a more personal level for your feedback and input. Thank you so much again for this opportunity.

Go here for a video of the Standing Committee’s February 6 meeting. James Grunau’s presentation watch at 16:44:47 to 17:14:58.

In a recent email to me, Loren Balisky said:

In the extremely challenging housing market, the most vulnerable populations – like refugee claimants – are most at risk. Community-driven housing solutions delivered through a partnership approach builds safe communities where newcomers thrive and Canadians flourish.
The successful A Forum Focused on Solutions: Addressing the Urgent Shelter and Housing Needs of Refugee Claimants in BC’s Lower Mainland, hosted in May 2018, resulted in an action plan that we leveraged into a seven month project: Toward a Housing Solution for Refugee Claimants in BC in partnership with the Province of BC and the Multi-Agency Partnership. The project wraps up in March 2019 and will culminate with an asset map and a regional strategic plan that is community-owned and implemented.  

I have posted several stories about Journey Home and Kinbrace over the years; go here and here.

Journey Home Community periodically hosts training seminars and workshops for volunteers and partner organisations; the next one is February 23 at Olivet Baptist Church in New Westminster.

                                                **********************************

For anyone who is keen to learn more about the background to this presentation, here is the longer briefing, also by James Grunau, which each committee member received:

Addressing the Urgent Housing Needs of Refugee Claimants in BC’s Lower Mainland

Briefing for

The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration

James Grunau

Journey Home Community Association

February 6, 2019

Addressing the Urgent Housing Needs of Refugee Claimants in BC’s Lower Mainland

James Grunau and Loren Balisky with Robert Oliphant, chair (Liberal) of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.

Summary

Settlement agencies and partners in BC’s Lower Mainland are developing a comprehensive, community-based housing and support plan to accommodate the increasing number of refugee claimants (asylum claimants) arriving in the region.

Introduction

Canada is a signatory to the UN Convention (1951) and Protocol (1967) Relating to the Status of Refugees and is responsible for the protection of people seeking asylum in our country (known as “refugee claimants”). In 2017, a record 50,000+ refugee claimants arrived in Canada, 2335 of these in BC (about 5% of the national number).  2018 showed even larger numbers (55,695 nationally). The housing market in BC’s Lower Mainland (high rental + low vacancy rates) creates a significant housing challenge for refugee claimants and their support network who are struggling to meet this basic human need.

The UN 1951 Refugee Convention is the key legal document which was created post WWII and then ratified again in 1967 with some alterations to better reflect the world landscape since WWII.1

A refugee, according to the Convention, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.2

The core principle is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law.3

So, unlike most if not all other sub-sets of immigrants or newcomers, refugees have not chosen to migrate, they have been forcibly displaced. Forcible displacement creates an additional set of challenges for this population group and, as can be expected, has a significant impact on the healthy integration of refugees into their host country. It may include multiple stops along the refugee highway, uncertain legal status for undetermined periods of time and fragile mental health conditions.

The UN reports the current global refugee population at 25.4 million with an additional 3.1 million asylum seekers. This does not include the 40 million internally displaced people who have not left the borders of their home country. Every day 44.400 people are forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution.4 The focus of this briefing will be refugees and, in particular, refugee claimants or asylum claimants.

The Canadian Context

Given that a number representing 2/3 of the population of Canada lives in our world as refugees, what is the Canadian response? Canada has provided three different pathways for refugees to access Canadian protection. Each year the Canadian government sets a quota for how many government assisted refugees (GARs) it will sponsor and accept for Permanent Residency. In addition, Canada has provided an opportunity for the public to sponsor refugees under its privately sponsored refugee program (PSRs) and sets an annual target for this group. All of these sponsored refugees have had their refugee status determined outside of Canada and land as Permanent Residents.

The third pathway is that of asylum seekers or refugee claimants (RCs) as they are referred to in Canada. These are people who are fleeing persecution, are able to make their own way to Canada and arrive here claiming refugee protection. Because Canada is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, temporary protection is granted once the refugee crosses the Canadian border and an opportunity is given to present their case to the Immigration and Refugee Board to determine if they merit refugee protection according to the UN Convention. Thus their status is determined inside of Canada and, if the determination is positive, they are given the opportunity to apply for Permanent Residency.

With the global refugee numbers in mind, what are the Canadian statistics for these three groups? This data is important for all those interested in Canadian immigration patterns. For 2017, Canada’s target for GARs was approximately 7,500, for PSRs it was 16,0005 and the number of asylum seeker or refugee claimant (RC) arrivals was 50,3906, more than double the combined “sponsored” refugee totals. Almost 5% of the Canadian refugee claimant total, 2,335, arrived in the province of British Columbia, with the majority settling in the Metro Vancouver area.7 The RC arrival totals held steady for BC for 2018. The refugee population with the majority of these being refugee claimants makes up a significant proportion of the Canadian immigration total which was approximately 300,000 for 2017.8 It is the refugee claimant (RC) population group on which this briefing will now focus more specifically.

An Organization is Born in BC to Address the Housing Needs of Refugee Claimants

Journey Home Community was born in 2005 after an investigation showed a population group, refugee claimants, was arriving in Vancouver annually with little in the way of supports being offered to these new arrivals. Learning that there was support in the form of programs and resources available for sponsored refugees but little in the way of an organized response to refugee claimants, a group of people from a church home group began to think, pray and talk about the need and the opportunity. A couple in the group offered their rental house in Surrey and soon this band of volunteers was caring for two refugee claimant families from Afghanistan and Mexico, learning refugee resettlement while practicing it. From the beginning the group recognized that resettlement must be holistic in nature, addressing every dimension of the human experience. The mission statement reads, “Inspired by God’s love, Journey Home Community welcomes refugees into community by offering housing, settlement support and relational care.”9 Support is offered unconditionally, and is best carried out in a community environment where mutual relationships are established.

Journey Home Community Grows Its Offer to Refugee Claimants

Fast forward to 2019, and Journey Home Community continues to operate with the same mandate but with some increased resources compared to the days of those organic and humble beginnings. With a current staff of eight, two refugee houses with live-in core hosts, twelve transition housing units in connection with the provincial housing corporation and a host of volunteers and partners, Journey Home Community (JHC) has stayed true to its mission of welcoming newly arriving refugee claimants, focusing on families with children. During these past thirteen years, JHC has been able to care for over 600 refugee claimants from approximately 45 different nations. There have been quality relationships established, healthy integration of many into local communities and multiple lives transformed.

However, 600 seems like a small number compared to the thousands and thousands who have arrived in Metro Vancouver during these past thirteen years. With that in mind, and with JHC’s realization that local citizens have great potential to offer care and support, the organization began to expand its focus a few years ago and give increased attention to establishing more local church and community partnerships. The thinking was that instead of just adding more staff and more refugee houses, why not multiply itself through local churches and other community groups by offering training and coaching to volunteer teams who could in turn provide housing, settlement support and relational care in the same way that JHC was providing? The staff remembered the roots of the organization and how JHC began as a group of volunteers offering this kind of assistance, so why couldn’t they train other volunteers to do exactly the same thing?

A pilot project was started with a local church in Vancouver and the “Welcoming Communities for Refugee Claimants” program was launched. The original church partner has now gone on to assist multiple families and other church groups have come on board. There are currently six churches partnering with JHC in this program with the goal of adding an additional six churches or community groups in 2019. This level of involvement with refugee claimants is truly going beyond a kind of surface hospitality to engagement at a much deeper and more involved level. Care for anyone, whether a new refugee or an old friend, needs to be offered with no strings attached and no hidden agendas.

A Holistic Reception and Housing Plan for Refugee Claimants in BC

Early on in its life, Journey Home Community quickly became involved in what became Metro Vancouver’s Multi-Agency Partnership (MAP). This network of over 40 refugee claimant serving organizations also involves all levels of government including the IRB, IRCC and CBSA from the federal level, along with some provincial, municipal and business representatives. MAP meets monthly to collaborate on issues that relate to refugee claimants. Last spring MAP held a housing forum to address the extremely difficult housing challenges for refugee claimants in Metro Vancouver and invited a broad range of stakeholders including those mentioned above. From that forum an Action Plan was developed to initiate creative solutions for housing along the whole continuum from initial and immediate care for new arrivals to transition and then to permanent housing along with accompanying supports.

While Canada is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and provides protection for refugee claimants so in that sense is a place of welcome, there is no cohesive strategy or plan for basic care or support when they arrive. That responsibility is left to the provinces, municipalities and the non-profit sector. As such, there is often little capacity to address the level of need that exists and no coordinated approach across the nation.

MAP is creatively tackling the housing barriers for refugee claimants by taking bold steps through key actions identified through the Housing Forum. In partnership with the Province of BC (Ministry of Jobs, Trade and Technology) and the input of multiple stakeholders, the MAP community is completing a seven-month project – Towards a Housing Solution for Refugee Claimants in BC – which ends in March 2019. This project is a small beginning in building capacity among current housing providers, increase public awareness, and lead to a strategic housing and support plan for refugee claimants in BC’s Lower Mainland as a result of research and asset mapping. The goal is that the housing needs of refugee claimants will be met along the whole continuum from arrival to permanent housing and integration.

A Key Strategy – A Refugee Claimant Reception Centre

A key piece in this strategy of a comprehensive approach for the care for refugee claimants is the development of a Refugee Claimant Reception Centre. The MAP partners envision this being a hub which will include immediate housing for the first two to four weeks after arrival, initial orientation to settlement services and assistance with the next stage of housing. Drawing on years of agency experience there is a vision for three pathways for refugee claimants leaving the Centre – (1) transition housing for the most vulnerable with agencies already providing this service, (2) supportive communities with faith groups and other community groups for those less vulnerable and (3) assistance with only locating permanent housing for the least vulnerable. These pathways would draw on programs currently in existence.

One of the critical elements such a Centre would provide is a landing space for refugee claimants who arrive in BC’s Lower Mainland with no contacts, often no resources and no place for them to be directed to for housing in those first critical weeks. To illustrate, Journey Home Community (JHC) came into contact with a single father of four children under the age of four in Vancouver. He was staying in a hotel for the first three nights of his arrival which was provided by the Red Cross. JHC connected with a church partner who had a place for him to move into but had lost contact with him. He was forced to leave the hotel and was wandering the streets of Vancouver with four young children on a winter night. That should not happen in Canada. Fortunately a partner volunteer had left her phone number with the hotel in case he called back which he did. They were able to move him and his children into the prepared home and the story had a happy ending although not without some increased trauma for the father. A Reception Centre would alleviate those very difficult first weeks of shelter hopping, couch surfing or outright homelessness.

Vancouver stands ready to implement this key part of the housing forum Action Plan and envisions a collaboration of various levels of government, private funding and community support. Multiple stakeholders have been approached including some churches with potential property available for this kind of Centre. There seems to be a high level of interest and invitations for more specific plans and information which we are currently working on. Can Metro Vancouver and MAP count on the federal government to be a partner in this opportunity? JHC and MAP believe that Metro Vancouver could provide the initial demonstration or “proof of concept” which, when shown to be successful, could be transferred to other regions and scaled according to need. Very basic data gathering suggests a capital cost of $5-10 million depending on the initial size of project and available land space. Operating costs would run several million dollars annually. The MAP Housing Working Group co-chairs are in the process of refining those numbers. Modular construction has become popular in the Metro Vancouver region and that is one possibility being investigated.

Conclusion

Many years of experience with refugee claimants indicates a population group with much skill and expertise, great courage and resilience and a drive to do well in the new homeland which has provided them with protection and opportunity. The time has come for a more comprehensive strategy and plan for welcoming these newcomers and giving them the start they long for in becoming strong contributing members of our society. Let’s join together in seeing their full potential realized and our nation being stronger for it!

Organization Summary

Journey Home Community Association is a Canadian charity operating from Metro Vancouver and established in 2005. The vision was to provide housing, settlement support and relational care for newly arriving refugee claimants to Metro Vancouver. The mandate has remained exclusively on refugee claimants and the focus has always been families with children.

Journey Home Community with its staff of 8, currently operates 2 refugee houses for immediate arrivals and provides a stay of 3-4 months before assisting families with the move to more permanent housing. It also has an agreement with BC Housing for 12 transitional units to provide housing and support for more vulnerable families for and additional 12-24 months. In its newly formed program, Welcoming Communities for Refugee Claimants, Journey Home Community trains and coaches refugee teams from partner church and community groups to provide the same kind of care and support which the organization provides.

Bibliography

Canadian Council for Refugees, www.ccrweb.ca
Government of Canada 2017 Asylum Claims, www.canada.ca
Journey Home Community Association, www.journeyhomecommunity.ca
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), www.unhcr.org
1 https://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html, home page
2 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, p. 3.
3 https://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html, home page
4 https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html, home page
5 https://ccrweb.ca/en/2017-immigration-levels-comments, home page
6 https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/refugees/asylum-claims-2017.html, see chart: Total Asylum Claimants processed by the CBSA and IRCC, January – December 2017
7 See footnote 6
8 See footnote 6
9 https://www.journeyhomecommunity.ca/our-mission/

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