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Gov't Loans Saddling 'Most at Risk' Refugees with Debt

Canadians 'should be ashamed' of charging government-assisted refugees for resettlement: Surrey councillor.

By Katie Hyslop 7 Apr 2014 | Tyee Solutions Society

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth well-being for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

This series was produced with funding from Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives. TCI neither influences nor endorses the particular content of Tyee Solutions Society reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

The same day she was to fly from Lebanon to Canada with her family last May, Zeena Alhamadani learned she owed the Canadian government over $5,000.

An Iraqi refugee, Alhamadani came to Beirut, Lebanon, with her three sons in 2010, waiting to be placed in a safe country by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. After three years the United Nations arranged for the family to come to Canada as government-assisted refugees.

Unlike privately sponsored refugees or those who make their own way to Canada seeking asylum, the Canadian government foots the bill for the travel and medical expenses to bring government-assisted refugees to Canada.

But they have to pay the Canadian government back.

Alhamadani told The Tyee she knew "from the beginning" she would have to repay the Canadian government. But she wasn't told how big the bill would be until the day they flew to Canada.

Two months later, Alhamadani received a letter from Citizenship and Immigration Canada saying she needed to start paying back the loan. A minimum monthly payment of $72, she was told, would be enough to keep interest from accumulating on her debt.

But her only income since she's been in Canada has been a monthly federal government settlement wage of $1,300. After making her loan and rent payments the single mom has $453 left over per month to cover groceries, clothes, transportation and other expenses for her and her sons, ages 17, 13, and 10. The settlement funds run out at the end of May, and if the single mom isn't able to find a job she will have to go on income assistance.

"There is always a shortage of money," said Alhamadani, who now lives in Surrey with her children. "I try to make a budget for the necessary things only, like for the rent, for the food, and I make use of the food bank," which she visits once a week.

'Such a heavy burden'

Surrey is home to one-third of all the refugees that come to B.C., and it's the first Canadian municipality to publicly denounce and campaign against Canada's Refugee Transportation Loan program.

"We should be ashamed of what we're asking these people to do as a country," said Surrey city councillor Judy Villeneuve.

With no national housing or child care programs to support them, government-assisted refugees who typically have no financial assets and face huge obstacles to employment like degree recognition and language barriers are forced to rely on income assistance.

"We are just putting such a heavy burden on people that want to make a contribution," said Villeneuve, "and Canada has brought [them] over here to become citizens. So there's something wrong with this picture."

Canada's Refugee Transportation Loan program started in 1951 to help resettle people displaced by World War II. Today it's focused on resettling the 10.4 million refugees "of concern" to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The United Nations body seeks to resettle just 0.8 to 0.9 per cent of those refugees per year, says Chris Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., a number they have not always been successful in meeting.

"In the mid to late '80s, the target of resettled refugees was actually double what it is and has been for more than 10 years now," said Friesen, who serves as director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society.

"So in the '80s, during the double digit interest rates, we were resettling more refugees than we have been for the last 20 years."

'Saving taxpayers $600 million': Minister Alexander

Citizenship and Immigration Canada Minister Chris Alexander declined an interview, but in an email to The Tyee Solutions Society a ministry spokesperson stated "Canada welcomes one out of every 10 refugees resettled around the world, more than almost any other country in the world. In 2012, Canada was ranked number one as the country with the highest volume of resettled refugee arrivals per capital, according to the [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] Global Trends."

The Tyee Solutions Society asked for specific numbers of government-assisted refugees brought into Canada in 2012, and how that number has changed since 1980. After over two weeks of emails back and forth with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, they would only provide us numbers dating back to 2003, where annual counts ranged between 7,295 and 7,572 government-assisted refugees brought to Canada. The last number provided was 7,364 in 2011.

The United Nations' 2013 statistics show Canada accepted 10,400 refugee applicants in 2013, including government-assisted refugees, half the number it did in 2012. As a result Canada's ranking dropped to eighth out of 44 countries in the number of refugees accepted per capita, and 16 out of 44 countries for total number of refugees accepted in 2013.

The decrease in Canada's overall refugee numbers is likely due to our reformed immigration law, which includes a list of 27 "safe" countries of origin. Refugees from those countries are not able to appeal if their applications for refugee status in Canada are denied.

In February Minister Alexander told the Toronto Star that asylum applications had dropped 87 per cent as a result of the changes: "saving taxpayers $600 million in spending."

Paying government with government's money

Citizenship and Immigration Canada told The Tyee 91 per cent of government-assisted refugees repay their loans, adding they have up to six years to repay, and interest deferrals are available from one to three years if necessary. The ministry added if refugees can't repay their loan they are not deported or denied Canadian citizenship.

Repayment starts 30 days after landing in Canada, although refugees can possibly defer payment for up to 24 months. Repaid loan money goes towards funding the transportation loans of future government-assisted refugees.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada says the cost of government-assisted refugee loans varies from year to year, although no family's loan is supposed to exceed $10,000. However, family members 19 and older receive their own loans because of "the high cost some large families encountered."

Villeneuve says government collects $38 million per year from that refugee class, but Friesen disagreed, saying it's less than $30 million.

Canada and the United States are the only countries that ask refugees to repay their travel and medical costs, Friesen said, and Canada is the only country that charges interest -- prime plus one per cent.

Unlike the Alhamadanis, who knew about the loan before they came to Canada, Friesen says many refugees have no idea they're agreeing to repay thousands of dollars in loans when they come to Canada. Although loans aren't supposed to exceed $10,000 per family, government provides all family members 19 and over with their own loans.

After 12 months of receiving settlement funding, Villeneuve says many refugees go on provincial income assistance. Exactly how many rely on government assistance is difficult to determine (see sidebar).

"The irony is the government's giving money to them, and the people are paying government's money back to them and struggling to make a living here," said Villeneuve, adding many government-assisted refugees come from war torn countries and spend years in refugee camps.

"They are becoming the people most at risk of homelessness in our community, most at risk of not being able to provide for their families, most at risk of not being able to graduate from high school and most at risk of having health problems because they're having major stress and struggle every day."

Vying with foreign temporary workers for jobs

Canada could be benefiting from government-assisted refugees in a different way if they were considered for some of the entry-level positions going to temporary foreign workers, Friesen said.

"We've made a commitment to resettle [government-assisted refugees] as permanent residents, so why don't we look after the underemployed permanent residents before we bring in more temporary foreign workers to do entry-level jobs?" he asked. In 2012 there were 330,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada.

Alhamadani has been unable to find a job in Canada. She was a doctor in Iraq for 15 years and wants to return to her medical career. But it's going to take four tests -- which cost at least $1,000 each -- and three to five years for her credentials to be recognized.

"Actually this subject is worrying me too much, especially because the kids are still young and nobody can help me," she said, adding she doesn't want to go on welfare.

Both Friesen and Villeneuve said they have heard of situations in which families pull older children out of school in order to help work off the loan, although neither has witnessed it first hand.

Even if kids manage to stay in school while their parents pay off the loan, Friesen said youth are aware of the stress their parents are under, in addition to dealing with their own stress.

"There is tremendous angst for recently arrived refugee teenagers trying to fit in, and then not having the financial needs to respond to the latest fashion or technological trend being driven by their peers," he said.

Surrey's new tactics

Immigrant Services Society of B.C., along with the Canadian Council for Refugees, has been campaigning to stop the loan practice. Friesen says they were almost successful in the 2012, but the issue was dropped from that year's budget draft. Instead he says the department is currently reviewing the program, creating and conferring with focus groups of refugees across the country on the issue.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada responded that "government policies are reviewed regularly."

In the last four years, Villeneuve and the City of Surrey have been successful in getting the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to speak out against the loan program, too. But despite meeting with several federal and provincial politicians to press the issue, Villeneuve says the federal government refuses to budge. Now the city is trying a different tactic: petitions.

"We have petitions moving in community amongst non-profit organizations, faith organizations and service organizations to try to educate people about this issue and to put pressure on the government," she said, adding they have no deadline or signature goal in place yet.

"But there's so much work that's been put into it at this level, really for such a small thing for the government to do, that we should be ashamed of what we're asking these people to do as a country."

Alhamadani doesn't hold it against the government for asking government-assisted refugees to repay transportation and medical costs. But at the same time she needs to save money to improve her family's living conditions.

"I wish I can live my life as a Canadian here, and involve myself with my community here, and prove myself," she said. "I really wish to go back to my career and qualify my degree to be a doctor. I'm sure it is not impossible, but it needs hard work, and money at the same time."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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