By CBC News |

The Immigrant Services Society of BC unveiled a text messaging service Wednesday intended to improve the organization’s ability to communicate with the growing number of newcomers to Canada.

Newcomer.info is “aimed at improving access to service by bringing useful information within easy reach of newcomers, particularly those prevented by low income and lack of English from seeking in-person services,” according the ISS website.

Launched on World Refugee Day, the web-based information tool will allow the ISS to send B.C.-based refugee claimants and other immigrants alerts and updates about services and events in the community while helping prevent the spread of misinformation.

In most cases, the messages will be sent in the client’s first language.

“It is a game-changer,” said Chris Friesen, the organization’s director of settlement services, adding that the pilot project “potentially has the impact to revolutionize how we communicate with refugees and immigrants in this country, particularly with those who do not speak English.”

The technology was initially developed by the Vancouver Community Network as StreetMessenger, a tool that allows the organization to communicate with members of the city’s homeless population.

ISS decided to pilot a borrowed version of the technology after it saw a 76-per-cent spike in the number of newcomers trying to access its services between 2016 and 2017.

“The capacity to provide in-person services has been stretched,” Friesen said. “We have limited staffing resources and that means we have to look at out-of-box, new ideas of how to ensure that refugee claimants have the most accurate information available to them in a timely basis.”

Given that most refugees now arrive in Canada with a cellphone, Friesen said a text messaging service was a natural next step in how the organization operates.

The Newcomer.info service doesn’t require a subscription and there is no app to download. Users can simply register online.
The service was unveiled in tandem with the results of a survey which Friesen said “provides important insights into current trends and characteristics of refugee claimants in B.C.”

More than 300 newcomers to the province completed the 40-part questionnaire.

According to Friesen, the results suggest factors such as human rights violations around the world and deteriorating conditions for refugees in other countries have contributed to the recent uptick in newcomers to Canada.

Most participants said they came directly to B.C., citing the more temperate weather, family connections and the proximity of major cities to the U.S. border.

Housing was among respondents’ biggest concerns when it comes to living in B.C. Some said landlords were unwilling to rent to them because of the uncertain legal status. Others, like many British Columbians, said rental housing was unaffordable and difficult to find.

Based on the findings, the ISS has made several recommendations to the federal and provincial governments, including that refugee claimants be eligible for four- or five-year work permits so that they aren’t depending on welfare while they wait for their claim to be heard.

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