Ed. Note: With this post, I am introducing a new feature to Pine Tree Republic called “Viewpoints”. This monthly series will present a distinct opinion and set of policy recommendations on a recent political or international relations issue, complementing our “Front Page News” features, which will remain as objective as possible in analyzing the wider forces behind recent world events. As always, I encourage you to share your own views on this series, and this month’s particular content, in the comments below!
On Monday, October 19, Canadians elected a new Liberal majority government, replacing the Conservative government that led the country for the past nine years. As part of his campaign platform, Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau pledged to dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees that Canada would take in – from a current 2,300 refugees in the country to 25,000 by the end of the year.
Such a rapid change, if indeed the new government follows through on its promise, also provides the opportunity to rethink how this country can more effectively and humanely support refugees seeking to start a new life in Canada.
Here are four specific proposals to help fix our refugee system, based in large part on reflections from our earlier three-part interview with a Syrian friend who recently came to Canada:
1. Commit to a fixed, quick timeline for reviewing refugee applications.
One of the most persistent frustrations expressed by my friend was the lack of clear timelines for reviewing refugee applications – both their own, and those of family members they are now sponsoring. Currently, potential refugees are given an initial estimate of how long it will take to process their application, but the actual time they have to wait can be several months more than what they were promised. Under most conditions we’re familiar with, this uncertainty may seem like a minor annoyance. If we’re applying to a university program, a job opening, or a loan, we usually have the luxury of continuing with our normal activities until the day we ultimately learn the outcome of our application.
However, for refugees fleeing an unsafe situation, that uncertainty can literally be the difference between life and death. This was illustrated in part by the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi on the shores of Turkey. Alan’s aunt, who lives in Canada, had attempted to apply for refugee status on a relative’s behalf, but that application ultimately became mired in bureaucracy. Without knowing whether their family would ever be granted Canadian refugee status, Alan’s father instead embarked on the perilous migration through Turkey and into Europe. Had there been more certainty about when the application would be approved or denied, the family may have waited to see if they could more safely exit Syria.
Besides questions of life-and-death, refugees (and their sponsors) must make several other important decisions based on imperfect information regarding the timelines of their applications. An especially important set of decisions revolves around finances – gaining refugee status and establishing one’s life in a new country require the sponsor and/or refugee applicant to spend several thousands of dollars in a short timeframe. In many cases, these funds comprise a significant portion of one’s savings, particularly in a country where the political and economic systems are unstable. Without clear timelines for the processing of their application, refugees often are not financially prepared when granted refugee status and in some cases must rush on the next flight to Canada (indeed, that was the case for my interviewee). From the host country perspective, this increases the strain on social agencies struggling to provide new refugees with a stable situation. Fixed timelines would at least provide all people involved with better information to prepare for an eventual move to Canada.
2. Focus on family reunification as a win-win-win-win to rapidly increase the integration of new refugees.
Currently, Canada’s immigration laws are not well set-up to encourage quick family reunification; that is, helping new Canadians sponsor the immigration of other close family members from their home countries. Fixing this should be an immediate priority for the new government, especially as it searches for ways to rapidly expand the number of refugees that Canada takes in.
The previous government imposed tight limits on the number of relatives who could be sponsored by a new Canadian, out of the belief that reunification often led to older relatives who would not contribute to the Canadian economy, and thus be a net “strain” on the country’s social services. Yet, family reunification is a “win” on so many levels:
- It provides a ready stream of eager sponsors who could help support a larger intake of new refugees.
- It provides new immigrants with a social support net that helps promote a stronger sense of permanency and integration in their new country.
- It may decrease the demand on social service agencies, as new refugees can turn to the family members who sponsored them to help guide them through life in a new country.
- It ultimately keeps more money in Canada. In my conversations with multiple Syrian refugees here, I was shocked by how much money they send every month to support close family members in Syria – often up to half of their monthly income. Bringing those family members to Canada would help keep more of that money in the country, where it could be used to support the local economy instead.
With a relatively ambitious goal of bringing in 25,000 refugees by year-end, faster family reunification is one common-sense tool that the new government can use to meet that target.
3. Offer “settlement scholarships” to new refugees to guide them through their first 18 months.
In speaking with my interviewee and other Syrian refugees, there were three common challenges to getting settled in Canada that were most often cited: finding housing, finding a job, and mastering the local language. While the Canadian government seems to provide a small stipend to refugees for their first couple months in Canada, usually on the order of $600 per month, this is often not enough to help new immigrants meet all three of these objectives.
Most refugees I have met already speak some English or French, and are eager to improve their language abilities to a professional working level. Typically, 12-18 months of dedicated language study would be more than enough to raise their proficiency to a level where they could access greater educational and/or career opportunities. Sadly, however, new refugees often have to make the difficult choice between taking language classes or immediately finding low-paying jobs to pay rent and send money to relatives overseas. This has the potential of creating a vicious cycle, in which newcomers are stuck working long hours at low-paying jobs, and never have the opportunity to master the host country’s language.
With a modestly greater investment, the government could greatly increase the odds for refugees to successfully embark on their journey to integration with Canadian society, and ultimately to becoming productive Canadian citizens. We already do this as a society with students who can’t afford to go to university on their own, out of a recognition that investing a little bit in someone’s potential early on in life can have a big payback later, both for the individual and for their contributions to society. A similar principle should be at play for refugees.
For the first 18 months of a new refugee’s life in Canada, the government should offer:
- Free English or French classes at a local community college (an estimated $5,000 total)
- A monthly stipend averaging $1,500, adjusted for cost-of-living, to cover cheap rent and some basic necessities
- In collaboration with municipalities, a limited-term stay at affordable housing rates
Combined with faster family reunification, this package would help better prepare refugees to access further educational or economic opportunities, and ultimately contribute greater productivity to their host societies.
4. Create a “Welcome Corps” of volunteers across the country to help integrate new refugees.
When my family and I moved in to a new neighbourhood six years ago, we were immediately welcomed by a next-door neighbour, who brought us a basket full of goodies and helpful orientation information on the services and amenities near our new home. Similarly, when I became a member of my synagogue two years ago, a couple who were long-time members came by my apartment one night to introduce themselves and share a bottle of wine. When I landed a new job around the same time, I spent my first week in orientation sessions, and was matched with a company veteran who helped mentor me through my first months at the company. In each case, the welcome I was afforded not only provided me with valuable information on my new environment, but also a key friend and contact to help me become part of my new community. So why don’t we do the same thing for new refugees?
One of the key lessons I took from interviewing my Syrian friend was how difficult it was for them to meet other Canadians, even after several years of living here, and in spite of their outgoing personality. In retrospect, it makes sense: most of the networks in which we typically make friends – school, the office, local pubs, other friends’ parties – are often inaccessible in the first years of a refugee’s experience, due to a variety of financial, language, and other societal barriers. This situation makes it very difficult for newcomers to learn the Canadian customs that we take for granted, and that help smooth the path for whatever opportunities we pursue. Additionally, new refugees often have a hard time figuring out basic information in setting up their life here, whether it’s understanding a rental contract, getting a driver’s licence, finding the nearest grocery store, or figuring out what winter tires are.
A “welcome corps” of trained volunteers in every Canadian city and town would help serve as a gathering point for the many Canadians volunteers who want to help welcome new refugees to the country, and provide newcomers with instant friends and contacts who would help them more quickly climb up the learning curve of basic life in Canada. As an added bonus, the government could provide discounted or free courses in languages most commonly spoken by refugees, such as Arabic, in return for a specified volunteer commitment. At the very least, this could help young and underemployed Canadians gain a useful skill that would help serve their careers for a long time.
Now it’s your turn – do you agree or disagree with any of these recommendations? What are your own views on how we can improve Canada’s refugee system?