Safety, shelter, housing, and income are all necessary for physical and mental health and a high quality of life for refugees. Despite this, it is medical factors that are often solely emphasized in the public sphere, ignoring the fact that the social conditions that refugees encounter upon arrival in Canada can be harmful to their health.
We started Humans for Refugees to raise awareness of these other issues, because it is our responsibility to help newcomers adjust to life in Canada. Students’ support for refugee health now will mean a healthier population and a stronger economy and society in the future.
One challenging aspect of refugees’ experiences in Canada may be communicating their needs, while contending with language barriers. For example, in addition to physically accessing services such as housing and health clinics, refugees also need to be able to understand their options in these areas. Language barriers may also impede socializing with other members of Canadian society.
Refugees often face financial barriers as well. Government assisted refugees can receive up to a year of income assistance, which provides them with some time to adjust to their new environment. After this, they may be eligible for support from provincial governments. Yet, much like other welfare recipients, this is often at a level below the poverty line. Moreover, an absence of networking opportunities affects refugees’ job prospects; if they have limited social circles, they may not have access to opportunities. Lack of employment then limits income, which is known to affect health.
When entering Canada, refugees are also immediately faced with a lack of affordable housing. Likely with little understanding of the Canadian housing market, refugees need one-on-one assistance and education that will guide them through the process. The Resettlement Assistance Program created by the Government of Canada has a funding system that provides temporary residency, permanent accommodations as well as basic household items.
However, even for refugees that have access to this financial aid, the process is lengthy and immediate accommodation is not provided. Poor housing consequently affects employment, integration, and both physical and mental health.
Finally, while not as immediately apparent as other issues, refugees are known to face a higher risk of mental health issues than the rest of the population. Canadians concerned with refugee mental health should advocate for more accessible acute mental health care, including funding to access professionals trained in treating trauma, including conditions like PTSD. CAMH recently offered a U of T-accredited course for mental health professionals. More initiatives of this sort can help counselors overcome language and cultural barriers, improving the care that they can offer.
While we commend the federal government’s restoration of funding for refugee healthcare, more needs to be done. Without broad public pressure for action on social factors, refugees will not be able to become healthy, well-adjusted Canadians. Refugees are our neighbours, co-workers, community partners and fellow Canadians. Not only do we have a moral responsibility to them, but also improving their health status will help our economy and improve our society as a whole.
Humans for Refugees is a social media-based refugee health awareness and activism campaign. If you are interested in getting involved, please visit our Facebook page and email us your stories and questions at email@example.com. We will also be gathering U of T students’ opinions on refugee health at the Sidney Smith lobby on March 30.
Whether you decide to reach out to a refugee family to offer help, volunteer with an organization, donate, or simply send a letter to your local MPP or MP, your support is essential. Individual efforts might seem minor, but they help build a strong community, leading to better health for all.
Miina Balasubramaniam, Sanah Matadar, Shameemah Khan and Julia Robson are students from Humans for Refugees.