You don’t have to live like a refugee

This editorial on the housing needs of refugee newcomers was published in the Winnipeg Free Press. The research referenced in the editorial is through the Manitoba Research Alliance Partnering for Change grant funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Having fled their home countries to escape violence and war, refugees in Canada find their full inclusion in society delayed, threatened or obstructed. With all due respect to Tom Petty for the lyrical inspiration, it is high time that we ask: when is it that refugees ‘don’t have to live like refugees?’ When do refugees actually stop being refugees?

I research how housing pertains to this topic with the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council (MIIC). Front-line housing and settlement workers have told me that at one time landlords and public housing managers were recruiting newcomers to live in their buildings. Now, however, new refugees are having difficulty finding housing at all. When they do, it is far too often in overcrowded, substandard and dangerous conditions.

The reason for this is largely a structural economic one. Since the early 1990s, the support for housing that government-assisted refugees (GARs) receive from government has remained almost stagnant, while housing costs in Winnipeg have skyrocketed. To pay the rent, GAR families face a difficult choice: draw from other areas of support intended to contribute to household well-being, including the child tax benefit; draw from their savings, should they have any; or maybe move into housing with others, only to find overcrowded conditions. Any of these decisions may delay individuals’ and families’ full participation in Winnipeg society and lead to having to move multiple times.

In a society as wealthy as Canada’s, we have the ability to rectify the situation. For example, some MIIC clients have been able to access provincial rent supplements to cover the cost between their allocated housing budget and market rates. More should be able to. Housing First is an initiative that has credibly demonstrated the net savings society enjoys when homeless people are properly housed, due to the correspondingly reduced demand for emergency services. An analogous case can be made for resettling refugees with respect to the net benefits derived from expediting the settlement process.

However, with refugees there also exists a strong moral argument: there is a point at which Canada’s international humanitarian obligations must be realized in a socially meaningful sense in the communities in which former refugees come to reside. But today we find ourselves in a climate in which a comprehensive public response to resettled refugee well-being is difficult to achieve. As Carol Sanders reported in this paper on Saturday, recently arrived refugees and organizations that serve refugees face “the chill of mistrust” — attitudes of segments of Canadian society that hamper refugees’ ability to work, make friends, enrol their children in community activities and go to school free of harassment.

The stigmatization of newcomers in this way prevents their full settlement. People who leave their home countries due to military conflict remain precariously situated across Canadian cities due to social reasons. We live in a time in which the spectre of the bogus refugee is routinely invoked — the veritable barbarian at the gate who is scheming to bleed Canadian society dry with his or her claims against Canada’s social welfare system. Collectively, we must shift away from such cynicism and emphasize that displaced people move not by their choosing, but due to violent conflict beyond their control.

Many are leading this shift. Recently, Winnipeg hosted the Canadian Council for Refugees’ spring consultation, an event that featured the inspired efforts and collective wisdom of community organizations, faith groups, youth delegates, academics and refugees themselves, all of whom are striving to make their local communities more hospitable for newcomers. The consultation was called Home, Dignity: Human Rights, an expression of the centrality of home and housing to refugee resettlement as they strive for dignified and secure lives. Home in this sense means the sum of physical housing, supportive communities, cultures of belonging and inclusion, and comprehensive public support.

A society as wealthy as Canada’s is capable of producing such a home, and ensuring that former refugees stop living like refugees in the communities we share, here and now.

Ray Silvius is an assistant political science professor at the University of Winnipeg. He is working with the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council on a three-year research project on refugee housing conditions.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2015 A13