News / Vancouver

Increase in 2017 asylum claims sparks Vancouver refugee collaboration

City of Vancouver funds nearly $200,000 towards 'powerful collaboration' among refugee-serving agencies.

Mona Hassannia, manager of Settlement Orientation Services (SOS), speaks at Vancouver's Welcome House on Wednesday.

David P. Ball / Metro

Mona Hassannia, manager of Settlement Orientation Services (SOS), speaks at Vancouver's Welcome House on Wednesday.

Faced with a "significant" rise in asylum seekers arriving in the Vancouver area, the region's leading refugee agencies are teaming up to find ways of working together to stretch their budgets which remain "essentially the same" as before the global crisis.

Chis Friesen, settlement services director with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., estimated that 80 per cent of the nearly 300 refugee claimants his organization has served in just the first three months of 2017, arrived on foot across the border from the U.S. into B.C.

"There is an underground railroad that supports these individuals coming from abroad," he explained. "… They just walk. Even individuals in wheelchairs have somehow crossed the grass to come into Canada, we’re not quite sure how.

"This is not new, but what is new is the increasing numbers and the diversity of the source countries, and the complexity of needs many of these families (come with)."

At a press conference on Wednesday morning, the City of Vancouver stepped forward with more than $180,000 in funding to five local organizations at the front line of welcoming refugees.

The mayor received thanks from an African refugee, Petros, who asked that his full name and nationality not be published for fear of reprisals against his family back home.

"I was not the same Petros, the same person, when I was here back in November 2016," he told reporters. "I am a transformed person."

He said more support is needed for refugee-serving organizations — both financial, and improved tools and technology for their work — because they are "services that impact thousands of lives."

"(They) helped me a lot," he added. Frank Cohn, executive director of the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture (VAST), described the complex mental health challenges his organization treats, hoping to help refugees heal from trauma and often persecution and violence.

"As we have seen the number of refugees increase, our incredible staff team has stayed the same size," Cohn explained. "As the needs are increasing, we do need to increase the resources we have available to meet those needs."

Announcing the city's funding for the partnership, which is housed at the Welcome House operated by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said he hoped the contribution would help ensure the multi-agency centre could be "a hub to be a leading edge.

"We are seeing significant numbers continuing to come," he added. "There’s lots of people coming, lots of needs.

"As a city, given lots of us here have been refugees or immigrants to this city and ended up making this our homes — there’s lots we can do at a local level."

Canada being a country with much wealth, argued Friesen, means that "on a moral and ethical basis, given the global refugee crisis that's approaching 70 million worldwide, we can offer shelter and support for a small number of refugees."

But Friesen said the province needs to increase the social assistance rates it offers, which have been locked at $610 for a single person for a decade. Under those rates, which are also provided to successful refugee claimants like Petros, he is only allotted $375 for his housing costs, taken out of the $610.

Correction (April 26): An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the executive director of the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, who is Frank Cohn.

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