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Province steps up to fund refugee mental health services

For refugees, starting over just got easier as the provincial government has promised settlement service agencies in British Columbia it will pick up funding for refugee mental health services that was cut by the feds in January.

Without federal funding the agencies would have been unable to continue providing help and support for traumatized refugee claimants by the end of March, The Tyee first reported last month.

"This is great news," says Chris Friesen of Immigrant Services Society (ISS) of BC, which is set to receive $400,000 from the province. "We're working with such a marginalized and at-risk-population here so I'm absolutely thrilled that we'll be able to continue to support them."

ISS will redistribute the funding between itself and Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture (VAST), the largest organization in B.C. providing refugee mental health services.

Both organizations are currently in discussions to work out the details.

VAST lost 75 per cent, or about $250,000, of their budget when the feds cut funding. Executive director Dylan Mazur described the loss as a possible "mental health crisis" as refugees would have nowhere to go if VAST was forced to close its doors.

$400,000 from the province is little more than half of what ISS and VAST received from the federal funding and Friesen admits that they could use more. But it's a foot in the door, he says, and they won't be greedy.

"With the money we will be able to keep the doors open," says Friesen.

The new funding is awarded by the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training which oversees immigration services in the province.

"It has always been our priority to support newcomers to B.C. regardless of their immigration status," a ministry official wrote in an email to The Tyee. "Refugees are highly vulnerable when they first arrive in B.C. and we want to support them during their refugee claim process."

Funding for refugee mental health services used to be streamed from Ottawa to the province through the Canada-B.C. Immigration Agreement. Refugee mental health services took up a small part -- close to $800,000 -- of the total amount of $100 million which the province divided between various settlement agencies.

When Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) Minister Jason Kenney unexpectedly revoked the agreement in April 2012 it centralized the process and meant that organizations like ISS and VAST would have to apply directly to CIC for funding.

Both organizations did so last summer and in January 2014 they both received a rejection with no explanation from CIC.

"CIC does not fund health care services through settlement funding," wrote CIC spokesperson Nancy Caron in an email to The Tyee. Any services offering social or psychological counselling to refugee claimants fall under provincial responsibility, she added.

Immigrant Services Society of BC is in negotiations with CIC in the hopes they will provide additional funding to maintain a position for a settlement crisis support worker that has been with the organization for five years. Friesen hopes to have finished negotiations before March 31 when last year's funding runs out.

Kristian Secher is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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