Coming to Canada as a refugee

Refugees face challenges to live comfortably in Canadian society 

Refugee migration is complex, and many issues exist in their support system.

Refugee migration is fundamental to Canada’s broader history of immigration and settlement. 

Since confederation in 1867, more than 17 million individuals have come to Canada seeking opportunities from abroad. These folks came from all walks of life, and many were fleeing persecution.   

Indeed, Canada has had a storied past with intaking refugees. In the 50s and 60s, the first mass wave of refugees came to Canada’s shores, most of them from Eastern Europe.

In subsequent decades, many other groups would make the same arduous journey, whether they were from Uganda, Vietnam, Cambodia. Canada’s seen many refugees seeking political protections from a whole host of nations.  

This year, Afghanistan caught the hearts and imaginations of many people due to the horrific humanitarian conditions brought to light following the US military’s departure from the region.

Newscasts have shed light on the shortcomings of current policies, implemented by Canada and other nations towards Afghan refugees. 

According to Colin Grey, Associate Professor of Law at Queen’s, Canadian immigrant policy at large tends to be “geared towards accepting advantaged people.” 

“Most of the people we accept are economic immigrants who are chosen based on their skills and education. This should always be questioned,” Grey said in an interview with The Journal.

Immigration of refugees isn’t understood to be a part of traditional political and moral theory—theories that seek to answer the simple question of how our society should govern itself. This separation of immigration issues from mainstream thought can perpetuate misinformation and erasure surrounding the role and position of immigrants and refugees  over time. 

“If you look at classic liberal theories you don’t see mention of immigration,” Grey said. “In a 1981 book chapter, Michael Walter argued that justice doesn’t apply to questions of immigration selection. That is a fairly disturbing thought.”


Along with academic denial of the refugee experience, the current political system uses legal barriers to create roadblocks.

“Canada is generous and is a world leader in resettlement, but behind that is mechanisms that are put in place which prevent everyone else from coming to Canada,” Grey said. 

In Grey’s opinion, visa requirements most commonly pose a barrier to refugees. Navigating the visa application cycle can be a daunting experience, combined with the fact that there are significant challenges to even being able to apply for a visa in some places around the world. 

This makes the process already challenging for a group of people who are often already  marginalized in their countries of origin. 

This is further complicated by barriers created by the adjudication process and registering some specific refugee claims at borders. 

“Visa requirements are the biggest obstacle,” Grey said. “Visa requirements allow for parliament to designate the nationals of which countries have to get visas. The government has given itself this flexible discretion.”

Grey explained the Canadian government, through current legislation, can amend discretionary provisions—laws that prioritize certain classes of refugees. Those certain classes oftentimes end up encompassing more privileged refugees, such as those who had access to education in English. 

“When the government announces that it will admit Afghans under a special policy who have a significant connection with the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, it is passed under §25.1 or 25.2 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act,” Grey said.  

Grey added that providing immigration officers with the liberty to admit refugees based on their own professional judgement isn’t entirely a fair system and can be inherently discriminatory. This practice is formally known as agency discretion.

“If you exercise agency discretion in favour of some, you’re not exercising it in favour of others,” Grey said. 

“There are 84 million forcibly displaced people around the world, we’re exercising humanitarian discretion to admit 20,000 Afghan refugees [through various government visa streams].”

“You are inevitably excluding some people, and that’s inevitably discriminatory,” Grey said.  

Grey added there are ways the system could be improved to improve fairness for refugee status claimants. 

“The Government could broaden the definition of people who are eligible for resettlement from abroad, arguably those are too narrow now [...] The problem is also the policy decisions, will the Government decide to admit as many people as they should?” Grey said.


Another important aspect about the refugee experience in Canada is navigating life once in Canada. This comes after the laborious work of obtaining legal status or being on the cusp of fully receiving legal status.

The Journal sat down with staff at the Kingston Community Health Centres (KCHC) to learn more about the refugee resettlement program within the Kingston area.

When settling down in Canada, refugees face unique challenges because of the circumstances by which they left their countries of origin. Oftentimes, these challenges can be related to health, language, culture, social inclusion, or housing. 

“Language is the biggest barrier that refugees face, especially when we don’t have resources available in their native languages,” Rasha Fahim, MEd ’18, co-coordinator settlement worker at KCHC said in an interview with The Journal

Along with language and the role it plays in the lives of newcomer refugees in Kingston, there’s also the issue of forming and maintaining social connections within the Kingston community.

“Creating a social network outside their own ethnic groups and cultures is very difficult, that is something [newcomer refugees] have said they want more of,” Gaitree Oogarah, part-time settlement worker at KCHC, explained. 

“The barrier around integration and inclusion exists in Kingston. There are a lot of issues around language and culture. The ability to embrace new Canadians, in this case refugees, is a two-way process for integration. The host environment needs to be proactive,” Muhammad Sani, programme coordinator at KCHC said in an interview with The Journal.

Along with the lack of social integration newcomer refugees are faced with, there’s also an issue of education among the youth population. For many students, they have developed gaps in their learning due to being on the move between various education systems. 

“There is a huge educational gap that a lot of the children and youth have, this is because they’re coming from war and they weren’t able to attend schools,” Fahim said. 

The school system in Canada doesn’t support these students because students are placed in grades according to their age and not their prior education.

The education system is also a challenge for adults to navigate, especially for  refugees who might already possess higher education degrees and certifications. These individuals often must undergo re-certification programmes which are lengthy and sometimes challenging to complete in a new country.

This can lead to underemployment— folks are employed in positions they’re over-qualified for. This is especially common for individuals possessing professional degrees like in Medicine, Law, Engineering, or Nursing. 

“Speaking broadly, there’s a challenge around certification. Because the newcomers did not go to school in Canada, their certificates will not be as readily acceptable,” Sani said. 

“It delays their opportunities to access the labour market. Even for those without specialized degrees, there is underemployment and unemployment,”

“A lot of groups have been providing bridging programmes which are new, they are not supporting the numbers of people who have come before. A lot of newcomers just get into survival jobs,” Fahim said.

Personal finances for newcomer refugees also become dependent on whether individuals can access re-certification programmes in Canada. 

“To be able to have a credential recognized, you have to take courses, write exams, and this takes money and time,” Oogarah said.

For many newcomer refugees, access to support through the healthcare system can be challenging. According to KCHC staff, this is especially the case given the context of language barriers, issues integrating into local social settings, and the focus individuals might have on supporting their families through work. 

“No doctors speak their languages,” Oogarah said. 

The KCHC staff believe that a doctor who can speak an individual’s own language can greatly aide in health outcomes and navigating the health system.

“In Kingston there’s minimal support [through the healthcare system], the only supports I see are for children and youth through other organizations. For professional support, they are very minimal, and the wait times are long,” Fahim explained. 

Fahim also discussed the fact that there’s social stigma related to many mental health issues which can be common in newcomer refugees due to their experiences fleeing persecution or extreme violence.

“They’ve been through a lot of trauma. The first year is survival mode, and then they have to address their trauma. Then there isn’t any support for them,” Fahim said. 

Sani also mentioned that the sociological implications of refugee newcomers’ 

ethno-cultural backgrounds can create challenges in accessing mental health support. 

“Even within some of the ethno-cultural communities it is a taboo to speak about someone going through mental health issues. If you have doctors coming from the same communities it will help newcomers feel much more comfortable,” Sani said. 

A newcomer refugee’s culture and background also serve as a cornerstone for another epidemic—racism. 

According to Oogarah, there’s still a mistrust of refugees that can be felt at times. 

“Plain racism—people  don’t trust people from other countries,” Oogarah said. “People have heard the stories that refugees will come and take all the money, take jobs away from Canadians.” 

“There have been hate crimes against some of the families, but [refugees] do bond together to support each other,” Fahim said. 

The staff at KCHC say that despite challenges that exist, their organization along with many in the City of Kingston—including  the Queen’s University Family Clinic—are working hard to ensure no one falls through the cracks.

“Not all is bad, there are so many positive initiatives to help newcomers and refugees settle. There is still so much to be done, without which people will not feel welcomed in Kingston,” Sani said. 

“A lot of good people have come out and helped with refugees, and we want to help them and thank them,” Oogarah said.

The KCHC staff believe that more funding is needed in the Kingston area to support their initiatives and programmes to assist refugees. 

“We are very limited because of the resources and funding that we have. We are generally funded by IRCC [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada] for permanent residents, so convention refugees and refugee claimants, but we also apply for grants,” Fahim said. 

Despite this, the KCHC continues to support refugees. 

“It doesn’t matter when the refugees come, we will always continue to help them despite them being in the country for multiple years,” Oogarah said. 

The KCHC and other organizations have also developed in-depth strategies from their experience working with Syrian refugees, and they believe this experience will be utilized in supporting the new flux of Afghan refugees.

“We know what the issues will be, and we know the steps that we need to take right away to help them,” Oogarah said. 

Along with supporting refugees, there are many opportunities for those interested in helping. The KCHC staff believes that there’s significant energy and opportunity for support from the youth of Kingston and from Queen’s students. 

“Students can volunteer to support. It’s a seamless process, and they can start now,” Fahim said. 

The KCHC staff identified that refugee newcomers are inspiring—they’re a group that rises above the challenges they have been faced with, and there’s a lot of optimism and hope.

“The trauma that refugees experience is beyond our understanding. The amount of resilience they bring with them is truly inspiring. That is what we learn from them,” Fahim said. 

“Find out where people come from, what they are about, don’t just assume,” Oogarah said.

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