Canada ‘This is really the end’: Asylum seekers in Canada struggle with suicidal thoughts

18:13  13 october  2022
18:13  13 october  2022 Source:   globalnews.ca

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Aaliyah often thinks about ending her life. She says the shame of abandoning her children is the only thing keeping her alive sometimes.

Asylum seekers in Canada experience high rates of mental health issues, including suicidal ideation.. © Laura Whelan Asylum seekers in Canada experience high rates of mental health issues, including suicidal ideation..

“I don't want to be selfish and leave them behind just because it was too much for me,” she said during a recent interview from her home in Toronto. “I’m just struggling, trying to survive each day.”

Like many people seeking asylum in Canada, Aaliyah’s life has been filled with despair.

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She said militants arrested, tortured and sexually assaulted her in her home country. These same men killed her father and brother because of their political beliefs, she said, and for allegedly opposing the government’s rule.

Global News is concealing Aaliyah’s identity and certain details about her case, such as her country of origin, because of the risks she and her children face if her refugee claim is rejected and they’re forced to leave Canada.

Global News has reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from Aaliyah’s confidential immigration file as part of a thorough examination of her case. This includes medical reports, evidence submitted by her lawyer and the government to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), multiple rulings from adjudicators, and correspondence between Aaliyah and the IRB about her case.

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Since arriving in Canada nearly five years ago, Aaliyah has struggled with mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

She said the fear of not knowing whether her claim will be accepted and whether her family will be deported is debilitating. She was working full-time but recently went on short-term disability because the stress she feels means she can no longer function at her job.

“The anxiety comes in waves,” she said. “I need to breathe, but I can’t breathe. I’m choking.”

Research from Canada, the U.K. and other high-income countries shows asylum seekers experience higher rates of serious mental health issues while waiting for their claims to be processed than citizens and people with permanent immigration status. Researchers have also found that forcibly displaced people may be “disproportionately affected” by suicide risk due to prolonged periods of uncertainty about the future, family separation and poverty.

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And while the COVID-19 pandemic caused the number of people seeking asylum in Canada to slow to a trickle, immigration officials have expressed concerns that the number of new claims could soon meet or exceed the spikes seen in 2018 and 2019 once international travel returns to normal.

According to the most recent UN study, there were nearly 100 million forcibly displaced people around the world at the end of 2021.

“We need to rethink what it is we're doing in our system that leads people to such immense distress that they would think suicide is the only option,” said Dr. Michaela Beder, a Toronto psychiatrist who specializes in immigration and severe mental illness.

Aaliyah came to Canada in January 2018 to make a refugee claim.

At times, Aaliyah said she wishes the world would open up and swallow her and her kids. She said she can’t imagine killing them, but disappearing with them would make the pain go away.

“Last year, I felt like this is really the end,” she said. “I was very suicidal. At some point, I felt like I was just going to end my life and then be done.”

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A psychological evaluation submitted as part of Aaliyah’s claim describes the attacks she said she endured while in captivity. The evaluation also talks about the consequences of these alleged assaults – nightmares, flashbacks, disorientation and destabilizing anxiety.

“I was being targeted,” Aaliyah said. “I’ve been harassed. I’ve been kidnapped. Tortured.”

Roughly 35,000 refugee claims are decided in Canada each year, according to IRB statistics. About 60 per cent of these claims are accepted, roughly 30 per cent are rejected, and the remaining 10 per cent are either abandoned or withdrawn.

Beder, who has never met Aaliyah, said the experiences she described are not uncommon among the asylum seekers she sees as patients.

While many people feel a sense of relief after arriving in Canada because they’re no longer in immediate danger, these feelings often fade when the reality of how long the refugee process takes sets in, she said.

There’s also a psychological burden placed upon claimants, she said, who must recount their worst traumas in front of strangers, deepening their psychological wounds and sense of isolation.

“The refugee determination process is extremely stressful and the toll that that takes on people's mental health is very significant,” Beder said.

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Typically, when a person files a refugee claim, they have a hearing at the IRB, which is an independent tribunal, separate from the government. An adjudicator listens to testimony, reviews evidence submitted by the claimant and decides whether to accept or reject their claim.

But in Aaliyah’s case, a representative of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada “intervened” in the claim because she believed parts of Aaliyah’s story were untrue and because she said Aaliyah hadn’t proven her identity, which is necessary in order to be accepted as a refugee.

This kind of intervention is relatively rare. It happens in about seven per cent of claims, according to data from the IRB.

This usually occurs when a government representative reviews a claim and decides they want to intervene because they have doubts about the details of the specific case or because the case fits a pattern that the government believes could indicate fraudulent activity.

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The acceptance rate in these kinds of cases is lower than the overall acceptance rate for refugee claims, according to the IRB, averaging about 35 per cent over the past four years.

Intervention can also change the way hearings at the IRB work because two sides – the government and the claimant – must now submit evidence for an adjudicator to review.

Government representatives may also question claimants during hearings in cases they intervene in, which advocates say makes the process more adversarial.

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In Aaliyah’s case, the adjudicator decided the government’s submissions and questions were insufficient to reject her claim. Her decision, issued in January 2020, said Aaliyah and her children were refugees in need of Canada’s protection and that she’d proven her identity.

“I was happy,” Aaliyah said. “I was finally able to heal.”

But a few weeks after her claim was accepted, the government sent Aaliyah a letter that said it planned to appeal the decision, explaining that immigration officials believed the adjudicator hadn’t properly considered all the evidence.

The appeals adjudicator agreed with the government and in February 2021 ordered that Aaliyah’s case be reheard.

Nearly two more years passed before Aaliyah received a new hearing, which took place in September of this year. She said that at the end of the hearing, the adjudicator said he would make his ruling within a few months.

Aaliyah said the government’s decision to appeal forced her into a state of complete despair. To this day, she said, the sight of a manilla envelope makes her panic.

“My world was utterly turned upside down,” she said.

Physicians who treat asylum seekers in Canada provide front-line mental health care and direct claimants to other resources, such as trauma counselling and social services.

Dr. Vanessa Redditt, a family physician in Toronto who works exclusively with asylum seekers, said she has patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

She said it’s not uncommon for her patients to experience acute mental health crises while waiting for their claims to be decided or after they’re rejected.

She also said precarious immigration status, long periods of family separation, inadequate housing and racial discrimination can exacerbate the traumas claimants experienced before coming to Canada.

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“A foundational step of healing from trauma is attaining a sense of security and safety,” Redditt said. “With uncertain immigration status, people don't have that sense of safety.”

Researchers have also found that asylum seekers in Canada and other countries experience higher rates of mental health issues compared to citizens or people with permanent immigration status.

A 2021 review of studies looking at suicide rates among forcibly displaced people found they may be “disproportionately affected by suicide risk.”

The review, which was the largest of its kind ever completed on this topic, found evidence that asylum seekers are especially at risk when it comes to suicide and suicide attempts.

“We did find that, particularly among asylum seekers and refugees in camps, there was a higher risk of these events compared with the host population,” said Dr. Elise Cogo, an epidemiologist and co-author of the review.

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Another study, published in 2016 by Canadian researchers, found that asylum seekers were far more likely to experience major and minor depression after giving birth.

The researchers looked at a sample of 1,125 women living in Canada at different stages of the immigration process – asylum seekers without status, refugees with status, economic immigrants and Canadian-born women.

Cogo said studies that compare rates of mental illness among groups of people with different immigration status are the best way to determine if certain groups are at higher risk for mental illness than others.

The Canadian study, which Cogo wasn’t part of, found that asylum seekers were three times more likely to experience symptoms of depression at 16 weeks postpartum than Canadian-born women.

The study also found that asylum seekers were six-and-a-half times more likely to report acts of self-harm than Canadian-born women at 16 weeks postpartum.

Another factor advocates say contributes to mental health issues among asylum seekers is the refugee determination process itself.

Claimants are generally required to recount the most horrific and traumatizing events of their lives. In many cases, this includes incidents of persecution, torture, rape, arbitrary arrest and kidnappings.

“Before the interviews, I prepare myself physically and mentally,” said Amir, a 27-year-old refugee claimant who’s been in Canada since 2018.

In his written claim for protection, Amir said his family was persecuted by al-Shabab in Somalia, a terrorist group with the aim of setting up an ISIS-style caliphate, and by police in Kenya.

He said the fear and anxiety he feels before a hearing is so intense that he buys a bottle of Advil each time because he knows he’ll need it afterwards.

“I feel my body getting hot when I get out (of the hearing),” he said. “I’m stressed, and I stay home for two days. I don’t move sometimes.”

Global News is concealing Amir’s identity because of the risks he faces if sent back to Somalia. He also has family members still living in Somalia and neighbouring countries who could be at risk if his identity were revealed.

Global News reviewed Amir’s confidential immigration file as part of a thorough examination of his case. This includes hundreds of pages of evidence submitted to the IRB by his lawyer and evidence submitted by the government.

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Amir said he and his family fled their home in Somalia when he was a child due to civil war and political instability. He said they moved to Kenya and lived as refugees.

But life in Kenya wasn’t easy either, he said.

As foreigners, Amir said he and his family faced discrimination. He said police arrested and beat his parents. He attributed these alleged incidents to their refugee status.

The family eventually gave up on Kenya and moved back to Somalia, Amir said, which is when al-Shabab began terrorizing them.

Amir said al-Shabab militants harassed his family because they didn’t adhere to the terrorist group’s interpretation of Islam. He said his father also ran an Islamic school that al-Shabab didn’t approve of.

“I felt like they were going to kill us,” Amir said.

As with Aaliyah’s case, the government decided to intervene in Amir’s claim. Immigration officials said that he hadn’t proven his identity and that he was untrustworthy.

The main issue the government had with Amir’s claim is that he entered Canada using a false identity, fraudulent passport and student visa.

But Amir claims he’s telling the truth and that all the documents were given to him by a human smuggler who planned everything for his trip to Canada.

He also said the government found evidence that supports his claim.

Documents provided by American immigration officials to Canadian immigration officials show Amir is a biometric match for a person listed on a U.S. immigration application that was submitted in 2009. Amir said the application was filed by his sister, who was living in the U.S. and wanted to sponsor her family.

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Amir also completed a DNA test that shows there is a 99.999 per cent chance he is the biological sibling of another Somali-born woman who later became a U.S. citizen and whose name also appears on the 2009 U.S. immigration application.

All of these details – birthdates, names and family immigration history – were provided to the IRB and to immigration officials before the government decided to intervene in Amir’s case on the grounds he hadn’t proven his identity.

Amir said the government’s “aggressive” pursuit of his case, even after biometric evidence supporting his identity was found, has created tremendous stress and anxiety in his life.

The government, meanwhile, insists Amir is not who he says he is and that his claim should be rejected.

“I feel I was treated unfairly,” he said.

Despite improvements to how long it takes to get a hearing at the IRB – expediting certain types of cases, hiring more adjudicators, and processing claims from countries with high acceptance rates without a hearing – advocates and refugee claimants say the process needs to be faster.

It takes about two years from the time a refugee claim is submitted in Canada to when a claimant gets a first hearing, according to the IRB.

This is 12 times longer than the time limit proscribed in federal regulation, which says all claimants must receive a hearing within 60 days of submitting their claim. In some cases, the time limit is as short as 30 days.

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But in February 2018, faced with an influx of asylum seekers crossing the border between New York and Quebec, the IRB enacted a clause in the regulation that allows it to suspend time limits if it lacks the capacity to hear cases due to “operational limitations.”

According to the IRB, the number of claims it received between 2018 and 2019 exceeded its capacity to process claims by about 25,000 cases. By early 2020, the backlog of unprocessed claims had grown to more than 93,000. This was the largest backlog in the 30-year history of the IRB.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic afforded the IRB a reprieve, allowing it to cut its inventory of unprocessed claims by about 40 per cent, the board said as recently as March that it fears these gains could be “at risk” due to a possible post-pandemic surge.

To avoid this situation, the IRB has called on the government to extend the roughly $600 million in “temporary” funding it received in recent federal budgets, which is set to expire in 2023.

“The IRB anticipates intake to return to or surpass previous volumes at levels that will exceed the board's funded capacity going forward,” the IRB said in March.

In Aaliyah’s case, it’s been five years without any answers. Her youngest daughter was a year old when she arrived in Canada. Now she’s six.

Aaliyah also has no idea if she and her husband are still together, she said.

When she was originally accepted as a refugee, she planned to start the process of bringing him to Canada. Now, with her case in limbo, she said their relationship is a “broken bridge.”

“Back in my country of origin, there was this aspect of physical torturing. You feel the pain being inflicted,” Aaliyah said. “But here, now, it’s like you’re being tortured emotionally.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Learn more about how to help someone in crisis on the government of Canada’s website.

Record of asylum seekers awaited: According to the Ministry of Integration, "increasing stress" .
in Rhineland-Palatinate is expected this year even more asylum seekers than in the previous record year 2016. So far, 7326 asylum seekers have been registered mainly from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey and Pakistan, said Minister of Integration Katharina Binz (Greens) on Monday. If the current number of access is high until the end of the year, the mark of 10,000 and thus the previous high from 2016 will be exceeded.

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