Metro Vancouver cities brace for refugee influx

Many Syrian refugees expected to come to Surrey as Canada gears up to air lift 25,000 in weeks ahead

Chris Friesen is executive director of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

Up to 3,000 Syrian refugees are predicted to come to Metro Vancouver as a result of the new federal government’s push to bring 25,000 to Canada by the end of the year.

And residents across the region are being urged to volunteer, donate and even open their homes to assist the incoming refugees once they arrive.

At least 10 per cent of Syrian refugees coming to Canada so far have come to B.C., and of those, the vast majority settle in Surrey, followed by surrounding cities such as Burnaby, New Westminster, Delta, Coquitlam and Richmond.

All of the 43 government-assisted Syrian refugees who have arrived in B.C. in 2015 have settled in those communities, and 26 of them are in Surrey.

“Surrey is expected to continue being the number one destination,” said Chris Friesen, executive director of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

He estimates Surrey alone could welcome 800 Syrian refugees and roughly 300 of them could be school age – 40 per cent are expected to be under 19 years old – triggering a scramble for classroom space.

Friesen said a website is being launched at issbc.org/refugee-crisis where Metro residents can find forms to volunteer and suggest accommodation options and other assistance.

“For those who are interested in private sponsorship we have a fund in place so people can make a donation towards a sponsorship if they don’t want to take the whole thing on.”

A regional emergency planning meeting is set for next Monday (Nov. 16) to coordinate the response of various agencies. Representatives of municipalities, school boards, health authorities and the Red Cross are to attend.

“We’re trying to be proactive as a region,” said Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve, adding refugees will need help with health, professional services and clothing, in addition to housing.

“That way we can be ahead of the game as a large number of refugees arrive.”

What’s not yet known is how many incoming Syrians will be housed initially on military bases and how many will need immediate housing, Friesen said.

They’re looking mainly for hotels and motels on transit routes with kitchenettes for short-term stays.

“For longer term housing we’re looking for everything – basement suites, rooms in people’s houses, cottages not being used, houses or apartments that are vacant.”

Emergency housing protocols could also be invoked to temporarily house arriving Syrians in cots on gym floors, church halls and arenas, if necessary.

Friesen spoke after federal officials announced Monday they’ve formed a cabinet subcommittee to tackle the logistics of the expedited refugee resettlement.

Military and commercial jets may be used to airlift the refugees to Canada, said John McCallum, the new Liberal government’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship.

“Every option is on the table, whatever works, whatever is cost-effective, whatever will get them here safely and quickly,” McCallum told reporters. “We will be looking for close collaboration in the days to come to help make a home for the victims of this tragedy.”

The federal government has stopped requiring private refugee sponsors to raise money to cover health insurance. They will now be covered the same as government-assisted refugees.

But Villeneuve said she will continue to press Ottawa to forgive transportation loans many refugees have had to promise to repay to cover their commercial flights as part of coming to Canada.

“The elimination of that loan repayment requirement is one of the most important things the federal government can do for new refugees to help get their lives off the ground,” she said.

“I believe it’s an immoral burden on people who have been through so much trauma.”

The transportation loans are not expected to apply on new Syrian arrivals.

The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. is federally contracted to resettle government-assisted refugees destined for B.C.  It has asked the federal government for $6 million to expand its staff by 100 to receive the dramatic increase in refugees.

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