Achieving inclusion for refugees and immigrants with disabilities

By Helen Kohl

Imagine the dilemma of a mentally handicapped refugee claimant who commits a crime, or a developmentally handicapped immigrant in detention at the airport. The ARCH Disability Law Centre and the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Equity Initiatives Department put together legal professionals at a recent seminar to discuss these scenarios and provide lawyers with strategies to deal with them.

Tess Sheldon (project lawyer in the Smith Inquest and PhD candidate at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto), social worker Tom Thuan Ngoc Phan (team leader, intake and case management, Hong Fook Mental Health Association) and lawyer Carole Simone Dahan (Director of Legal Aid Ontario’s Refugee Law Office) are experts on how to support people disabled clients with refugee and immigration matters.

The Immigration and Refugee Board is expected to actively enquire about a person’s disability-related needs including capacity, explains Ms. Sheldon, but the disability community still faces special challenges that lawyers can help them address. Among these challenges is access to long-term care for sponsored family members who may need to access the Ontario Disability Support Program or Ontario Works.

Mr. Phan knows all too well, through first-hand stories he hears every day from people with mental illnesses who encounter Canada’s immigration system, that injustice can prevail.

In his view, the constitutional rights of many people with mental illness are disregarded, and they can be subjected to indignity, disrespect and inhumane conditions. Too many end up deported to their countries of origin, he says, despite the fact that some were born in Ontario and have no supports outside Canada.

Ms. Dahan specializes in accommodating immigrants in detention who have arrived and are making a claim, supporting refugees who are facing removal from Canada as a result of a criminal charge, and launching appeals.

“These clients have high needs and are very vulnerable,” she points out. “The immigration system exacts a huge emotional toll on them and detention conditions can aggravate mental illnesses, including people’s ability to instruct counsel. Many are more focused on getting out of detention than on meeting their long-term goal of becoming a resident.”

Carole Dahan’s tips on dealing with refugee clients with disabilities:

  • Create a safe space
  • Take time to build trust
  • Ask clients if they need accommodation and/or would like a support person present
  • Recognize that challenges can span gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or disability
  • Build a network of good referrals to whom you can send clients to deal with issues in addition to their refugee matter – such as housing, poverty and family matters.