The School of Community and Public Affairs hosted a panel on the challenges of integration
“To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada,” tweeted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a little over a year ago. The hashtag he used inspired the title of a panel hosted by the Concordia School of Community and Public Affairs (SCPA) on Feb. 6. The French-language discussion focused on the challenges of integration and protection asylum seekers face in Canada.
The topic is timely and relevant, as Canada maintains its welcoming reputation. In 2017 alone, nearly 50,000 asylum claims were made, which is more than double the number of asylum seekers Canada welcomed in 2016, according to the Quebec Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion.
Many terms are used to describe newcomers to a country, including refugee, asylum seeker or immigrant. Although these words are often used interchangeably by the public, each comes with different rights and advantages. According to Richard Goldman, an immigration lawyer with the Comité d’aide aux réfugiés and one of the event’s panelists, there is a significant distinction between somebody who comes to Canada seeking refugee status and someone who claims to be an asylum seeker.
“If we take, for example, the 40,000 Syrian refugees who came here two years ago, they were selected abroad and were either government-sponsored or privately-sponsored by relatives,” Goldman said. “Once they land in Canada, they already have the status of a permanent resident.”
Permanent resident (PR) status gives a person most of the social benefits available to citizens, such as healthcare coverage and a work or study permit. After living in Canada for a certain amount of time, people with PR status can apply for Canadian citizenship.
For asylum seekers, the process is quite different. After arriving by plane or crossing the border (often illegally), asylum seekers make a refugee claim to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). If that claim is approved, they obtain protected person status, and only then can they apply for PR status.
According to Goldman, because of regulatory changes made in 2012 and a lack of resources, processing a claim and setting up a hearing with the IRB can take up to 18 months rather than the 60 days it used to take. “The system has become complex,” he said.
Panelist Mireille Métellus, who is in charge of welcoming newcomers at La Maison d’Haïti community group, added that, if an asylum seeker’s request is denied by the IRB, they can appeal the decision and other courses of action are available to obtain the protected person status.
The Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes (TCRI) is a collaboration between nearly 100 organizations working to support and protect refugees and immigrants in Quebec. The group’s project manager, Florence Bourdeau, was also among the panelists. She explained that, while protected persons do not have the same access to healthcare as someone with PR status, they have the right to apply to the Interim Federal Health Program. In theory, this offers them limited, temporary healthcare coverage. However, Bourdeau said only four clinics in Montreal accept this type of coverage. The reason it is not more widely accepted, she explained, is often because many clinics don’t know about this type of coverage, or because the payment method takes longer to process.
Bourdeau also emphasized that other services offered by the Quebec Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion, such as employment and housing services, are only available to PR holders.
Métellus said the process asylum seekers have to follow to obtain the PR status is inefficient. For example, protected persons have the right to send their children to school, but in order to do so, they need to provide an address. Yet most asylum seekers, Métellus explained, are placed in temporary housing for up to a month, and finding affordable housing is a problem for most newcomers. In addition, many protected person families can’t afford to send their young children to kindergarten or find available spots. If their children can’t be put in school, mothers will usually end up staying home, which affects their ability to enter the workforce, Bourdeau explained. “We document these issues at the TCRI. Clearly, discrimination exists,” she said. “Work needs to be done to improve this system.”
This discussion of how the current requirements make it harder for asylum seekers to integrate into society led to a question about systemic discrimination in the early stages of integration posed by panel moderator Hicham Khanafer, the project manager at the Centre social d’aide aux immigrants (CSAI). Bourdeau responded by claiming protected persons have a harder time finding a job than someone with PR status, even after they receive a work permit. This is because protected persons are not eligible for the government programs that help permanent residents find employment and navigate the Quebec labour market, she explained.
Panelist Frantz André, a member of the Comité d’action des personnes sans statut, said he agreed with the panelists, and has witnessed the discrimination and abuse vulnerable asylum seekers face when looking for employment or housing. Aude Mary, a researcher at the Bureau d’intégration des nouveaux arrivants à Montréal (BINAM), added that these people are a vulnerable clientele because their lack of knowledge about Quebec laws is often exploited.
In response, the BINAM is creating a commission that will intervene when employers or agencies take advantage of asylum seekers. Mary said she hopes Montreal’s decision last year to become a sanctuary city will lead to the development of more resources and services for newcomers since, according to Mary, more than 99 per cent of asylum seekers who arrive in Montreal stay on the island.
Photo by Alex Hutchins