Afghans languish in hotel rooms while Ukrainian refugees are quickly settled: advocate

Calgary Herald

Bill Kaufmann Oct 11, 2022 

Refugees, primarily those from Afghanistan, are being stranded in Calgary hotels due to skyrocketing rents, limits to assistance and racism, says an advocate helping newcomers.

“We’re seeing factors of systemic racism . . . When people are asked, ‘would you take in an Afghan family’ and they say ‘no,’ there’s issues with that,” said Lee Yuen.

“They’re more happy to get Ukrainian families — who often don’t speak English — than Afghan families into their homes.”

She also said that because the federal government is working with only one organization in Calgary to settle those refugees — the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS) — there’s a backlog of them in two Calgary hotels being used to temporarily accommodate them.

Some of the families have been living in those hotels for several months, say advocates and the refugees themselves.

In contrast, Lee Yuen said her agency and about 20 others that form the Calgary Newcomers Collaborative have been able to work effectively in helping settle those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

“There’s only one organization that can assist Afghans and that creates barriers,” she said.

“We’re really advocating for more than one organization to help . . . If the Calgary Newcomers Collaborative were able to work with them, none of them would be held up in a hotel.”

Then there’s the cost of rent in Calgary, which has been rising more quickly than in other major Canadian centres, that stretches federal benefits paid to support refugees and temporary residents, said Lee Yuen.

According to data, Calgary ranked 22nd in Canada for average rental costs, but those have risen the most over the past year with a one-bedroom suite pegged at $1,597 in September — an increase of nearly 30 per cent.

“It’s a perfect storm, especially for the Afghan refugees,” she said.

Even so, there are also challenges facing Ukrainian newcomers, who aren’t classified as refugees but as temporary residents whose lump sum benefit of a few thousand dollars doesn’t go far in an increasingly pricey rental market, said Lee Yuen.

They also don’t have the one year of federal financial support that’s accorded refugees, she added.

But individual Calgarians’ generosity and the work of faith groups have helped Ukrainians, she said, of whom about 12,000 have arrived in the city since the Russian invasion began in February, according to the CCIS.

The cost of rent and completing immigration paperwork are creating some delays in moving Afghan and other refugees to more permanent housing, said Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of the CCIS.

But overall, he said, the CCIS process is working, though 300 to 400 of them are in temporary accommodations.

In the past year, about 3,500 refugees have arrived in Calgary, roughly 2,000 from Afghanistan after the Taliban toppled the U.S.-backed government in August 2021.

“For 90 per cent of them we’ve found permanent accommodation,” said Birjandian, adding for most refugees, that hotel stay lasts three weeks.

“But the cost of rent is always a challenge . . . affordable housing doesn’t exist, but the good news is we don’t have any going to (homeless) shelters.”

The pressure on Calgary to house refugees and other newcomers isn’t likely to ease, with thousands more expected in the coming months, said both Lee Yuen and Birjandian.

One of the reasons for that is Calgary’s still relatively affordable rental costs and more vibrant job market is becoming increasingly known among those coming to Canada, said Birjandian.

“When they get to Calgary they have a relatively good experience,” he said.

 “It’s a positive thing for the economy but it also brings more challenges.”

Another is the fact there’s no federal cap on Canada accepting those newcomers, said Lee Yuen, “so (the influx) will continue.”

A man who heads an agency assisting immigrant youth said he hasn’t seen the racism mentioned by Lee Yuen “but we’re focused on children and youth.”

But Frank Cattoni of the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth said it’s vital agencies work together in the face of simultaneous refugee crises, which have resulted in the largest displacements since the Second World War.

“You have to have a collaborative mindset if you want to manage this . . . you can’t be competitive about it,” said Cattoni.

And he said sufficient resources must be earmarked to ensure youths from vulnerable newcomer families aren’t left adrift to possibly fall into lives of crime.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has been allotted $543.5 million in this year’s federal budget to help provinces and municipalities handle the influx of refugees and other newcomers, said spokesman Stuart Isherwood.

“We recognize that housing affordability and availability are challenges for Canadians and newcomers,” he said in an email.

“IRCC will continue to support the ongoing work to address the current housing challenges many individuals are facing by working together with our federal and provincial counterparts.”

In some cases, he said, that federal support will be extended from the usual one-year limit, who are also eligible for provincial assistance after that time.