There are many ways for refugees to seek safer homes, but some routes are faster than others

By: Rose De Souza

The UNHCR's annual global trends report shows that Canada took in 28,100 of the 92,400 refugees who were resettled in 25 countries during 2018. The report shows that over 18,000 refugees became Canadian citizens last year. Photos courtesy of Archivo.

After civil protests were met with violence and repression, war broke loose in Syria in 2011. For millions of Syrians, this became the beginning of a journey to find peace, safety and a better home.


As of Oct. 2019, 5.6 million Syrians are registered refugees under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Another 6.2 million are currently displaced within the country, according to World Vision. However, with only a few countries accepting limited numbers of refugees, many families will continue to be displaced and left within refugee camps of foreign countries with the hope that they will someday find a new home. 

Statistics from UNHCR, updated as of Dec. 1, 2019.

A direct route

In 2018, Canada resettled more refugees than any other country, taking in 28,100 of the 92,400 refugees resettled in 25 countries, according to a report published by the UNHCR. In 2019, Canada aims to resettle another 29,950 refugees with 19,000 arriving through private sponsorships. 


Private sponsors are groups of private citizens or organizations that agree to provide financial and emotional support to refugees for one year. 


Refugees may obtain private sponsors via referral from members of the community, including their own relatives if any, or through the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program that allows Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to match private sponsors to refugees identified by the UNHCR. 


A route of uncertainty

However, with the outflow of refugees from different parts of the world, not every family can be sponsored in time. 


“Sometimes people take five [or] six  years to come to Canada,” says Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS). “Except for some groups like refugees from Syria. They have been a bit different. Their cases have been expedited. They come faster.”


Despite a faster procedure, luck can be the difference between immigrating to a new home or settling within the refuge of camps allocated to refugees who left their country in fear of violence, war or persecution. 


“Refugees have to be outside their home country, apply for refugee status and be recognized by the UNHCR,” says Birjandian. 


“If they qualify for resettlement, then they go to a roster and they will be referred to different countries that are willing to take some refugees. If they are lucky, then they will be accepted to come to countries like Canada.”

Countries that host the most Syrian refugees as of 2016. Sourced from Pew Research.

The resettlement process

After refugees pass the security clearance, healthcare tests and interviews required for resettlement, another set of procedures are in place upon their arrival to Canada. 


These procedures can create barriers for newcomers.  


“The system is built for somebody who is born here,” says Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business associate professor Mohammed El Hazzouri. “If it’s somebody who was not born here, they will have to go through circles and have the right advocates and organizations give them advice. Otherwise, they might fall through the cracks.”


Overall, the resettlement process is extremely complex and variable for each newcomer. As Carolee Israel Turner, associate director at the Centre for Newcomers explains, the aftermath of fleeing one’s home can be messy and unpredictable.


“No one prepares the system to receive refugees — no one prepares schools, healthcare, education or the justice system in terms of the complexity of where the refugees are coming from,” says Israel Turner. 


Not only is the system unprepared, refugees have little control over their arrangements and circumstances here in Canada.


“If you’re a refugee, it’s not like you’re a skilled worker who has chosen to immigrate to Canada,” Israel Turner explains. “When you’re a refugee, you’re fleeing something. It’s a very different mentality and a very different process. People tend to see it all as immigration and it’s not.”


It is important to distinguish the intention of those seeking asylum with those emigrating. Refugees are not looking for career upgrades, travel opportunities, or better education — they are desperately seeking a home absent of conflict.


“Refugees are fleeing persecution — if they stay where they are, they will die,” says Israel Turner. “Refugees pretty much picked up what they could carry and left. They are not vermin or locusts.”


“All they want is to be safe — they don’t want anything else.”