Language barriers and living conditions create special COVID-19 challenges for refugee newcomers: York University expert


TORONTO, April 14, 2020 – Newcomers who came to Canada as refugees may be especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic because of difficulty accessing good information about it or struggling to adopt to physical distancing norms, given lower than average incomes, according to Professor Jennifer Hyndman in York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies.

Hyndman researches humanitarian disasters in East Africa and South Asia, but also studies social inclusion, risk, and hidden homelessness among newcomer groups in Canada. Both of these groups stand to be more vulnerable to COVID-19, given the conditions they face, she says.

As COVID-19 became a pandemic, the United Nations called on countries to adopt a human rights-based approach in protecting their vulnerable populations. Overseas, this may require paying more attention to the needs of refugee and displaced persons who are at once dispossessed from their homes and livelihoods at the same time as they are supposed to practice physical distancing and ‘stay home’, she says.

In the Canadian context, newcomers who arrive as refugees may be especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic because of difficulty accessing good information. They may also struggle to adapt to physical distancing norms, given less than ideal housing conditions and lower than average incomes, says Hyndman, who teaches geography and development studies in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

“Many of these former refugees who are now permanent residents live in tight quarters on lean incomes and make frequent visits to the food bank. Often, they also don’t speak English or French, at least at the outset,” she says. “This may lead to lack of information or even misinformation about the virus or how it spreads.”

Hyndman is available to comment on:

  • Improving communications and access to services for newcomer groups in Canada
  • Preparing for threats like COVID-19
  • How COVID-19 presents a greater threat to those who are poor and/or marginalized, especially when their housing might make it impossible to practice physical distancing
  • How governments can protect their societies during a pandemic
  • Preventing humanitarian disasters in global South countries hosting large refugee groups in cramped camps or dense informal shelters

Find out more about how York University is creating positive change in the COVID-19 pandemic here

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 York U's fully bilingual Glendon Campus is home to Southern Ontario's Centre of Excellence for French Language and Bilingual Postsecondary Education.

Media Contact: Gloria Suhasini, York University Media Relations, 647-463-4354,