Coronavirus Exacerbates Isolation, Poverty For Newly Arrived Refugees

Immigration hearings are postponed, jobs are scarce and charities are struggling.
A man sits in a room in a stock photo. The COVID-19 pandemic is making life even more isolating for refugee claimants in Canada.
A man sits in a room in a stock photo. The COVID-19 pandemic is making life even more isolating for refugee claimants in Canada.
Tara Moore via Getty Images

After waiting nine months for a hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board, Joseph was supposed to find out his fate on Friday. Instead, he found out in late March that his hearing would be postponed indefinitely because of COVID-19.

“You feel your hopes in the future are kind of shattered,” Joseph, whom HuffPost Canada agreed not to identify by his real name because of the risk of deportation, said in an interview.

“We came with some hope … And then when this happens, you don’t know what’s next.”

Joseph said the pandemic has made life more difficult and lonely for refugee claimants living in Canada, many of whom scrape by on social assistance and don’t speak English.

““You feel your hopes in the future are kind of shattered.””

- Joseph, refugee claimant

“It adds a lot of fear,” he said of the disease that has infected thousands and killed hundreds across the country. “You also think about your family left behind back home. What will happen to the family? What will happen to me?”

Joseph arrived in Canada from Ethiopia in June 2019. With the help of the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support (MCRS), a Waterloo-area charity that’s funded entirely by donations, he found shared housing with other new arrivals to Ontario.

He gets by on $750 a month from Ontario Works, the provincial social assistance program, and said he can’t afford things like hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.

It’s hard to feel safe when he can’t communicate with his roommates, all of whom speak different languages, Joseph said. And those who don’t speak English can’t access up-to-date information in their native languages.

“Some of the people in the group home may underestimate [the danger] and some will overestimate, which adds to the stress and isolation,” he said.

Video: Irregular border-crossers from the United States can no longer make claims for refugee status. Story continues after video.

Shelley Campagnola, the executive director of MCRS, said the pandemic is putting a financial strain on the charity and further isolating its clients.

“The reason charities exist is to fill the gaps,” Campagnola said. “Now the gaps are even bigger and need to be filled even more.”

She said that if social distancing measures continue for months and she can’t organize fundraising events, MCRS will have to cut services for its 1,619 clients.

“We cannot just not be here. But clearly we need to find new sources of funding and an entire shift in our funding model that we didn’t anticipate.”

Non-profits lay off staff while demand for services rises

MCRS’s experience is typical, according to data provided by the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN).

About 140 non-profits that serve newcomers and refugees answered a survey about how COVID-19 has affected them: 78 per cent said they’ve lost fundraising revenues, 87 per cent have had to disrupt the services they offer, 44 per cent have had to lay off staff and 21 per cent have closed their doors. At the same time, 52 per cent said there is now even more demand for their services.

ONN said the No. 1 thing these agencies are asking for is stabilization funding. Slightly more than half of the organizations that have temporarily closed will have to shut down permanently within six months if they don’t get an influx of cash, ONN’s survey found.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced a 75 per cent wage subsidy for charities, but Campagnola said MCRS won’t qualify. She said the organization will instead apply for the 10 per cent subsidy that Trudeau had announced earlier, but hopes more support is on its way.

“We need to be here on the other side of this.”

- Shelley Campagnola, MCRS

“It’d be great to see some kind of supports for charities that are doing this kind of work that literally can’t stop,” Campagnola said. “We need to be here on the other side of this.”

Both Trudeau and Campagnola said that now is the time for Canadians to step up and support charities if they can still afford it.

“This is an opportunity to show who we are as Canadians,” Campagnola said, “that we not only take care of those immediate to us but also the most vulnerable.”