Term ‘refugee’ carries negative connotation, says multicultural organization head

St. Catherine’s Standard

Allan Benner St. Catherine’s Standard Tue., Feb. 21, 2023

Janet Madume said says she doesn’t care where they came from, the circumstances that brought them to Canada — or the stigma and negativity associated with the term “refugee.”

The Welland Heritage Council and Multicultural Centre executive director said the only thing important to her and her team is that they are people in need of help.

“And as long as you’re a human being and you need our help, we’re going to help you, 100 per cent,” she said.

Her staff, as well as workers from other community agencies, have helped many of the thousands of asylum seekers staying in Niagara Falls hotels — transported here by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), after many of them crossed into the country from the United States at Roxham Road — an unofficial border crossing near Montreal.

“They are lovely families we’re helping,” Madume said, recalling a young family she helped settle in a beautiful apartment two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, she said there continues to be backlash to the recent influx of asylum seekers.

“People need to know they’re human. We don’t have to degrade them. It’s only the status that’s attached to them,” Madume said. “It’s as if the title (refugee) comes with a connotation — a negative one for that matter. I feel that really needs to be highlighted.”

At a time when Canada is increasingly looking to immigration to fill job vacancies, she said many of the people she has met are highly educated, and they’re all eager to find jobs.

“It’s going to add much-needed people in particular with smaller communities in this country. We’ve been screaming to the government, send people to our communities.”

But now that refugees are arriving here from all over the world, Madume said some people are complaining.

“People are saying this is a bad thing. I am actually seeing it as positive,” she said. “You can’t go on the right hand and say we need immigration to address all these gaps, and then on the other hand you’re selective of who’s coming into the communities.”

Madume fears some of the opposition could be fuelled by racism.

“That’s how I’m reading it, because it’s not making sense,” she said. “If you look at their demographics, the majority are brown skinned.”

Madume said has been a lot of support for people arriving here to escape the war in Europe, but in this case “it has just been the opposite for the refugees.”

Niagara Folk Arts Centre executive director Emily Kovacs urged Niagara’s political leaders, as well as the media, to not allow the influx of refugees to act as a wedge between the asylum seekers and Canadians.

“No one is illegal,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to help everyone.”

Kovacs and Madume also both called for abolishing the Safe Third-Country Agreement that has been in effect since 2004 at U.S. and Canada border crossings, requiring refugee claimants to request protection in the first safe country they arrive in unless they qualify for an exception.

The agreement allows Canadian border officials to send asylum seekers arriving from the U.S. back across the border.

“People should be able to show up at any port of entry without the threat of being returned to the U.S,” she said, adding the harsh treatment of asylum seekers there has not stopped.