Refugee agencies ready to deliver support if money, teamwork in place

Vancouver’s settlement agencies have a robust system that can absorb the nearly 3,000 Syrian refugees expected to arrive in B.C. the coming weeks, say advocates.

But they also warn that low federal funding and poor co-ordination between federal and provincial governments is preventing the various English-language schools, immigrant settlement agencies, health clinics, Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, and others from delivering enough services that will help the refugees establish a new life in B.C.

“The agencies already exist. They can open more classes if they have the money,” said Caroline Dailly, the settlement manager at Immigration Settlement Services of B.C.

But at the moment, there is not enough money to meet demands.

So Vancouver has an abundance of qualified English-language teachers but classes have chronically long wait lists. Group-counselling sessions have been a useful tool in the past, but lack of funding for mental-health services prevents them from being more widely available. And there is also limited funding for childcare, so refugees with young children cannot attend English classes even if they get a spot.

Students in a newcomer’s English class at Vancouver Career College practice conversation skills. Language proficiency is an important part of establishing a new life in Canada.

Students in a newcomers’ English class at Vancouver Career College practice conversation skills.

Besides the overall problem of low funding, some services are getting caught between two levels of government, according to one director.

Refugee settlement is a federal responsibility but health care is provincial. This means that mental-health care for refugees is not formally co-ordinated with settlement plans.

That’s a problem for the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture.

“You can’t separate mental health from settlement,” says Dylan Mazur, director of VAST. “Many programs are in a jurisdictional black hole.”

Dylan Mazur, director of Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture emphasizes the need for mental health needs to considered as part of refugee settlement plans.

Dylan Mazur, director of VAST, wants mental health to be part of refugee settlement plans.

The federal government’s budget for refugees used to be transferred to B.C. to be distributed provincially, which meant settlement and health programs had some connections with each other.

But in 2012, the federal government took control of distributing its funds, which ended the co-ordination with the provincial budget.

The B.C. government had previously been topping up federal transfers with $11 million but, since this shift, it spends just $4 million on health-related programs for refugees. The trauma support program at VAST was cut after the 2012 change in money distribution.

It’s important that newcomers feel welcomed and supported right away, said Dailly. They usually arrive feeling relieved and grateful to be able to start over.

But early support is still vital.

“If they feel very isolated because they can’t learn English or there’s too long a wait list or if they can’t access because they have to stay home with their kids, then it gets more complicated,” Dailly said.

The Liberal government presented its plan Tuesday for handling the 25,000 Syrian refugees it has has committed to bring to Canada. Vancouver agencies are meeting with government officials to learn how their services will be impacted.