Where is Refugee Resettlement Going in Canada?

Operation Syrian Refugee

Where is Refugee Resettlement Going in Canada?

The photo of a lifeless child washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015 horrified the world. Subsequent news of his Canadian association galvanized Canada and Canadians to action.

Operation Syrian Refugee – Canada’s commitment to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 29, 2016 – awakened widespread interest in refugee resettlement in Canada, a direction supported by the majority of Canadians.

Operation Syrian Refugee represents a historic achievement of which Canada should be proud. The large-scale, rapid resettlement of Syrian refugees offers space for reflection on what is working and what needs improvement. Two policy areas outlined below require immediate attention: Government Transportation Loans and Income Assistance.

Government Transportation Loans (“GTL”) cover costs associated with transportation to Canada, overseas medical exams and processing; they are repayable after six weeks and interest bearing after three years. Although the maximum is $10,000 per family, children 19 and older receive their own loan meaning refugee households begin their lives in Canada with significant debt. In spite of low incomes, the GTL program has the highest repayment rate of all government loan programs owing to a combination of factors, including misconceptions about the consequences of non-repayment, as well as cultural and religious beliefs about paying interest.

The Government of Canada’s decision to waive the GTL for resettled refugees arriving as part of Operation Syrian Refugee is to be commended; these families will begin the integration process without crippling debt. Yet, the consequence of this action is the establishment of a have/have not situation in which Syrians arriving before November 4th, 2015, privately sponsored Syrian refugees arriving March 1, 2016 or afterwards, and all non-Syrian refugees continue to be saddled with a potentially crippling GTL. As we look to the future, and a renewed commitment to refugees, there is a need to ensure those who have been forced to flee have an opportunity to rebuild their lives in Canada without debt.

Resettled refugees receive one year of financial assistance equivalent to provincial income assistance from the federal government, private sponsors or a combination of the two. This financial assistance is critical in providing resettled refugees with a year in which to focus upon learning English, increasing confidence to live and work in Canada, and rebuilding their lives. Research has demonstrated the positive impact of this assistance, suggesting the buffer year contributes to resettled refugees having higher incomes over the longer period than would be associated with their level of education upon arrival.

The arrival of significant numbers of refugees in a short period of time has highlighted the inadequacy of provincial income assistance (“IA”) rates, something that impacts not only resettled refugees but low-income British Columbians more broadly. For example, a family of four on BC Income Assistance receives $1,101/month (including $401.06 for support and $700.00 for shelter), compared to average rents for a two-bedroom apartment of $1,136 in BC (CMHC 2015). Without an increase to IA rates – and the shelter portion in particular – resettled refugees and other recipients will continue to experience substantial housing affordability challenges and be at risk for homelessness.

The Government of Canada has indicated it will increase immigration levels to 1% of the population, including a renewed commitment to humanitarian immigration. Ensuring successful refugee resettlement, however, necessitates consideration of associated policies, including government transportation loans and income assistance.