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Canada’s refugee policy – reality versus rhetoric

15 December 20161 comment

A year ago Canada was hailed as a humanitarian exemplar for opening its doors to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

The nation’s pin-up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the most of the media opportunity as he greeted the first group of 163 Syrians at Toronto Airport.

Since then, more than 35,000 Syrians have now arrived through multiple channels that include churches, charities, community organisations and government-funded resettlement groups.

But Canadians are learning that opening their collective front door to refugees was the easy part.

The Canadian Senate this week released a damning report on Syrian refugee resettlement efforts that finds the reality is much different to the rhetoric.

The report outlines a lack of planning, resources and care made available by the Trudeau government for newly arrived Syrians.

It details stories about poor living conditions, a failure to provide food and shelter to newcomers and queues for language training classes.

The report also cites stories about Syrians who want to return to war-torn rather than live semi-destitute in Canada.

The resettlement system in Canada allows for a ‘stipend’ or monthly living allowance to be paid to refugees – but only for a year.

After that families must either support themselves – a monumental task for many who struggle to find work – or enrol in their province’s social security assistance program, from which they receive substantially less than from the ‘stipend’.

Across Canada, thousands of Syrian refugees are facing this dilemma. Settlement agencies have launched workshops to help them cope with the anxiety, while others have blamed the federal government for turning its back on refugees as they struggle to find work and learn English or French.

Canadian Senator Thanh Hai Ngo – himself a refugee who arrived from Vietnam in 1975 – told the media recently that government had only half done its job.

“If you help them, you help them to the end. You don’t leave them in the middle of the street and say, ‘OK, that’s it, I’ve done my job’,” Sen Thanh said.

The result of this is that the provinces and municipalities shoulder much of the hard work of integration.

Ottawa City Councillor and refugee spokesman Michael Qaqish said the influx of Syrians was also putting strain on local infrastructure.

“There’s no question there’s a bit more pressure on the schools, on the community resource centres, on the food banks,” he said.

Ottawa City Council says around 1,700 refugees have settled in the city with 60 per cent of them younger than 14.

The Canadian government’s focus on bringing the most vulnerable refugees means many of those who arrive don’t speak English while some are illiterate in their own langauges (mostly Arabic).

Many of them, however, have skills that are in demand across the country, in sectors ranging from agriculture to trades.

Most of the anxiety about the one-year mark is around finding jobs, observors say.

While more than half of the privately sponsored Syrians who arrived in the past year have found employment – working in grocery shops, cafes or launching their own small businesses – Canadian government data shows employment rate among government-assisted refugees is just 12 per cent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, language is the primary obstacle to employment.

Around 60 per cent of Syrian refugees in Canada don’t speak English or French.

This situation leaves many refugees forced to make an invidious choice – to learn English or to work.

It’s a conundrum that is worsened by inadequate funding for language classes across the country.

In British Columbia, 5,000 people – refugees and immigrants from around the world – are currently on waiting lists for English courses.

In its conclusion, the Senate report called on the Canadian Government not to abandon the refugees it has accepted.

“We can’t abandon them. This is a particularly crucial time for the Syrian refugees we have welcomed to Canada,” the report said.

“We want more for these families than to see them living along the poverty line and going to food banks. No refugee, or any Canadian for that matter, should have to choose between feeding the family well and paying for their rent,” it said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist