" SpiritofSaltSpring:BC:Canada:GulfIslands:SaltSpring:Salt Spring:

January 15, 2008


I went to a talk tonight at the Central Library put on jointly by the Red Cross and Canada and Immigration Services. I wanted to hear about about Canada's refugee policies. Not opinion. Facts. Who gets in? Which countries? How does that get decided? I'd invited a friend who works as a paralegal at a law firm.

Out of 33 million refugees, worldwide, less than one percent will ever be resettled. If that statistic doesn't make you realize, in case you didn't already get it, that you'd won the lottery when you were born in Canada, then nothing will.

Apparently, refugees come to Canada in three ways. They show up seeking asylum. They are assisted by the government in an organized process facilitated mainly by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees with those types of refugees called government assisted refugees or GAR for short, or refugees can be privately sponsored.

Internationally there are only 70,000 spots annually with the US taking about 50,000 refugees and Canada and Australia taking about 7,500 government assisted refugees each although the total number of refugees who came to Canada in 2006 numbered around 35,000.

There are only 18 resettlement countries in the world and that why a refugee can be a refugee for, on average, 17 years prior to getting resettled in a new country. Think about that. Say it again. 17 years! And, these are not well educated refugees from Europe as in the past after World War II. These are people who may have lived in hill tribes, never had any education or any access to medical or dental care, who are not used to living in urban areas. Remember. 17 years. To re-emphasize this think about that and then hear that 40% of refugees are under the age of 18.

In Canada, three aspects govern the decision-making process. The first priority is protecting people who are in need of physical protection. This might include people living in war zones (such as Afghanistan), people who are being persecuted, women who are being raped and tortured, children.

There is strategic use of resettlement (for example, within a refugee camp if a specific ethnic group is being persecuted sometimes Canada will take groups of refugees out of the camp to alleviate the problem in the camp and free up resources (NGO services) there that this small group would be utilizing to an extraordinary degree because of the daily realities of their persecution. Finally,Canada tries to form a strategic approach to manage refugee situations in the world that have been ongoing for years.

People who live in Myanmar such as Karen refugees who have been in refugee camps along the border in Thailand, and people in Afghanistan, Iran, Vietnam, Somalia, Columbia have all been near the top of the list of countries Canada receives refugees from in recent years. Depending on what atrocities are taking place in the world, the list changes. Until 2002, Yugoslavia was on the list. The Sudan is on the list.

In 2009 Canada will be taking 5,000 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal. I have to find out why?

Refugees make up about 4-6% of total immigration to Canada.

The information was very interesting (albeit too long) but of course, nothing beats the drama that happens when there's an open mic which there was at the end of the talks.

A man from China who stated that he'd only been in the country a week proceeded not to actually ask a question but to speak about his impressions and his disbelief about some incidents that have happened to him in Vancouver during his week in Canada as if none of the rest of us would have noticed the situation all around us on a daily basis. He wasn't a refugee. He was an immigrant.

He was shocked, dismayed, frustrated, disbelieving that in only a week there were so many people he had seen begging on Vancouver's streets. He gave us some examples. He told us that one morning he went to McDonalds for breakfast to have a hot chocolate and a hamburger [he's assimilating in all the wrong ways it would seem] and he put it down on a table. He walked away to get a napkin and when he came back his food was gone. This, he said, would NEVER happen in China. You could leave your food and nobody would touch your food. My friend pointed out, a little sarcastically, that he appeared to be a shining example of just how well ESL is apparently working in China.

He was wearing a North Face bright yellow bomber jacket. He was indignant and felt that Canada should not be helping refugees until they were willing to help the people on the street. I personally thought, after a mere week, he was being a little too altruistic too soon and he might have done well to just be an observer for a while - maybe more than a week - before he started offering simplistic assessments of our unfortunate realities in North America, especially when it comes to Vancouver's homeless people.

At the same time, it was interesting to recognize that once again, we who live here have grown so complacent about the growing problem and about its complexities that it takes a newcomer to remind me how it's not okay to be complacent in the way most of us in Vancouver who are still living somewhere other than the street, are.

On the other hand, my friend, who lived with a man who was a refugee from China who pulled himself up from his bootstraps and is now an upstanding Canadian citizen (she said somehwat tongue in cheek) pointed out that he used to get the same way - indignant - because having come from where he'd come from he could not understand how any white person, raised in Canada, with every opportunity (relatively speaking) could be begging on the street.

The moderator, in fact, had to finally shut the guy down because he wouldn't stop talking and as a seasoned broadcaster she did a marvellous job at doing it while being extremely courteous. She pointed out that yes, we had a problem and that yes we should be finding a way to help both the homeless and the world's refugees. We could in fact do both.

I wondered as we left if anyone else walked away being reminded, once again about how complacent they'd become about homelessness now that it seems to have become institutionalized (if the use of that word isn't too ironic to describe the situation), on our streets.

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