Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with a Syrian refugee during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 1, 2016.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with a Syrian refugee during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 1, 2016.
Photo Credit: Chris Wattie / Reuters

Senate committee urges more help for Syrian refugees in Canada

The federal government needs to take immediate action to address urgent financial, mental health and educational needs facing Syrian refugees, says the Senate Committee on Human Rights.

Members of the committee are studying the integration of newly-arrived refugees, as well as the challenges faced by various levels of government, by private sponsors and by non-government organizations that provide services to refugees, said Senator Jim Munson.

Canada has accepted over 28,640 Syrian refugees since the new Liberal government came to power in November 2015.

The committee will table a full report with recommendations in the fall.

However, in light of witnesses’ testimony and the urgency of the situation that senators observed firsthand on fact-finding missions in Toronto and Montreal, the committee has made six preliminary observations that demand attention and action, Munson said.

“It was very emotional, incredible stories hearing first hand what the Syrian refugees are experiencing in this country,” Munson said in a phone interview with RCI. “What they told us is that they are grateful for what the Canadian government has done but much more needs to be done.”

(click to listen the full interview with Senator Jim Munson)

Paying back relocation fees

There are several refugees who have found it particularly difficult and stressful repaying the bills for their airfare to Canada, Munson said.

Syrian refugees who arrived after the Liberal government took power didn’t have to repay travel costs, but those who arrived earlier still do.

“Some of them who don’t speak either English or French are very concerned because in front of them they have the bill and it seemed to be obligatory to pay back a $900 airfare,” Munson said. “That’s quite stressful, you’re in a new country, you’re squeezed into a small apartment and now you have bills to pay.”

The committee is urging the federal government to take a serious look at this issue to see if it could forgive these loans, turn them into grants or give them more time to repay them, Munson said.

‘Forgotten piece’

The committee also wants to see a national strategy involving federal, provincial and territorial governments to help treat mental health problems suffered by refugees who have lived through years of conflict.

“We feel that this is sort of a forgotten piece in this incredible humanitarian jigsaw puzzle,” Munson said. “There has to be some cooperation going on between the provinces and the federal government in looking at these issues.”

One story that illustrated for him personally the mental scars the Syrian refugees carry was a little boy whose house they visited as part of their fact-finding mission, Munson said.

The boy had hidden away all his toys under his bed because he feared that soldiers might come and get them, he said.

“That to me is really a mental health issue,” Munson said.

Helping refugees integrate

Other measures the committee is recommending include more funding for language training and better programs to help young refugees adjust to life in Canada.

“The government’s commitment to Syrian refugees cannot end when they arrive in Canada. They come here with so little — they need our help if they are to successfully integrate,” said Senator Salma Ataullahjan, deputy chair of the committee. “The government has the means to put programming in place that will make an already difficult task less onerous. We hope they will act swiftly to ensure the resettlement program is a success.”

Immigration Minister John McCallum has appeared before the committee and was quite sympathetic to a lot of issues raised by the senators, Munson said.

“He never promised anything but I think we’ll see more hints of the government doing more things,” Munson said. “As I understand the House of Commons is going to have its own study and I think the minister will take this report at face value.”

The Senate committee recommends:

1.      Accelerating processing times for the disbursement of child tax benefits to refugees so they do not face undue financial hardship upon their arrival in Canada.

2.      Replacing immigration loans for transportation and other expenses with grants as they are an economic burden and a source of acute anxiety. Alternatively, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) could introduce a debt-forgiveness mechanism or interest-free loans.

3.      IRCC could increase funding for language-training programs that would be made available to refugees upon their arrival. Childcare could also be provided so parents can attend classes.

4.      IRCC could work with other departments as well as provincial and territorial governments to draft a comprehensive plan to address the mental health needs of refugees.

5.      IRCC could ensure more equitable treatment of refugees by eliminating different treatment for different categories of refugees with respect to processing times for applications, services provided and loan repayment obligations. This would lead to equal treatment for Syrian refugees who have arrived at different times, for government-assisted and privately-sponsored refugees, and for Syrian and non-Syrian refugees.

6.      IRCC could work with provincial and territorial governments and with settlement organizations to ensure adequate programming is available to youth, who face unique challenges in the integration process.

Categories: Immigration & Refugees, Politics
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