Preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics have had an unexpected effect on a vulnerable group in Vancouver.
Government-assisted refugees from volatile countries such as Somalia, Sudan and the Congo have not escaped the influence the Olympics have had on the city, even though they are not familiar with the Games.
Officials rushed refugees through the system so they would arrive well before the Games begin.
The sponsored refugees had to be dealt with quickly because the Welcome House that shelters them is close to an Olympics security zone. The house is run by the Immigrant Services Society of BC.
“We’ve had so many coming through, we haven’t been able to adequately deal with the ones that have arrived,” said Jim Siemens, Program Manager of the house. “We will spend the next six months doing that.”
Normally, the staff helps 810 government-assisted refugees resettle in Vancouver over 12 months. This year, they did it in six.
Double the refugees, half the time
October 15 was the last official day the house sheltered refugees for the year.
Siemens and staff help refugees find a permanent home, get permanent resident cards and deal with finances. Siemens said it will be easier to organize and to help the refugees with the settlement process now that the house’s environment is less chaotic.
The more refugees there are at once, the longer it takes to provide them with the tools to start new lives. A record 156 people came to the house in one month. Usually, about 70 government-assisted refugees arrive each month.
Renovations will take place while the building is empty. “When you have a 2-bedroom apartment for 6 months with a minimum of 8-10 people living in it, it gets pretty trashed,” Siemens said.
The house is near the high security zone around LiveCity Yaletown, an area expected to attract thousands of visitors during the Olympics. It will remain empty until the Games are over.
Issues such as increased airport traffic, additional security, and general transportation prompted officials to take this course of action with refugees.
Johanne Nadeau, spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said, “We’re not suspending anyone, we just have a different flow of people than usual.”
CIC deals with visas for the influx of Olympic athletes, coaches, and spectators. According to its website, it has a special application process to expedite the entry of these people to Vancouver.
The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada deals with claims from refugees already in Canada. It has also adjusted its schedule to prevent Olympic-related issues.
“It will be difficult to get in and out of the building. We’ve arranged it so refugees won’t have to,” said Melissa Anderson of the IRB. The board will not hold hearings downtown during the Games as it is located in a high security area on Georgia Street.
Both organizations say there will be no impact on the time it takes to complete their normal roles in the refugee process.
High security, high stress
Refugees who do not speak English might have had trouble if they had to deal with security officers, whose number will increase during the Olympics.
“People that are not from here don’t always have a good relationship with security forces,” said Siemens.
Travel from the airport to downtown Vancouver could have been difficult for refugees because of the high volume of traffic at the airport, the packed buses and trains downtown, and the high security presence expected during the Olympics.
“It’s not that the security would stop them,” said Siemens. “It’s not an easy thing for them to navigate through a security system.”
The Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit will deploy approximately 7000 security officers throughout the Games.
This unit contains members from the RCMP, municipal police forces and the military. According to its website, there will also be private security companies to perform screening duties at some venues.