Imagine you are travelling across a lake in a tin boat, and you see a body bobbing in the water. You motor over, haul the person into your boat, blow air into her blue lips and pound her chest until she is breathing again.
After delivering her to safety, what would you do?
Hug her? How about hand her a bill for your life-saving work, and the gas?
That’s basically what the Canadian government does with its Immigration Loan Program.
Every year, we fly in about 12,000 refugees from dire places around the world. In a wonderful gesture of compassion and humanity, we offer them a new chance at life. But we charge them for the flight here as well as the medical exams they had to undergo to qualify as refugees.
The loans range from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on the size of the family. We demand they start paying them 30 days after arrival. We give them one to three years to pay the loans back.
Then, we charge them interest!
Can you believe it?
Canada is one of just three countries that charge refugees for their airfare, according to Chris Friesen, president and founder of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance. But we have the ignoble title of being the only country that earns interest on that loan. (Right now, we charge 0.76 per cent, but over the past decade, the rate has gone as high as 4.13 per cent.)
Refugee advocates have been campaigning against the loans for decades. Finally, they’ve found some friendly ears. Immigration Minister John McCallum has waived the fee for the 25,000 Syrian refugees his government is bringing to Canada, and is considering scrapping it for the Syrian refugees who arrived before his government took power.
That’s wonderful. But what about the other refugees, who have escaped from similarly dangerous countries, like Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia?
Not only are the loans cruel. They are stupid. They work against the objective of Canada’s refugee program — which is not simply to save the lives of the most vulnerable, but to help them integrate so our country is “an even richer and more prosperous society.” (I am quoting Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s website.)
Since we want them to integrate, we ensure all refugees are supported through their first year. Their housing, food and education are paid for, either by the government or by their private sponsors. That year is meant to give them a foundation — some language skills, since just more than half arrive with no knowledge of English or French, a basic understanding of our systems and culture, maybe a few friends who can help in a crisis, and leads on a job.
But we all know that’s not enough. A government evaluation of the Immigration Loan Program, published in September, states a “reasonable time” for refugees to get on their own feet is three to five years. The same report shows it takes most three-person refugee families seven to nine years to climb out of poverty.
It goes without saying, then, that most dip into their settlement stipends — and welfare cheques later — to pay back those loans, leaving less for transit, food or rent. Almost 60 per cent of the refugees surveyed by Immigration staff for the program evaluation said paying back loans made “it difficult to pay for basic necessities, like food clothing and housing.”
More than half said they got a survival job to pay back the loan — which in theory, seems like a good thing, unless that job cuts into English classes. Some 24 per cent of refugees put off or quit their language training program to pay back their loan, the evaluation report states.
Once you leave those classes, it’s “virtually impossible to re-enroll,” according to a fascinating study on the 154 government-assisted refugees from Aceh, Indonesia, who were settled in Vancouver around 2005. Most of them dropped their ESL classes for construction or janitorial jobs soon after arriving, because their interpretation of Islam forbids paying interest. When the researchers interviewed 50 of them in 2009, only eight could conduct the interview in English.
Not surprisingly, their long-term job prospects were grim.
Immigration officials paint the loan program as a revolving fund, with current, lucky refugees paying for the flights and medical tests of future refugees. There’s a Hallmark sweetness to that.
But the loans average only $13 million a year — a drop in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s $1.7-billion proposed budget for 2015-16 and not even the nose of one single F-35 fighter jet.
There’s also the cost to the rest of us, as University of Toronto human rights law chair Audrey Macklin posits: “If we relieve people of this kind of debt, it frees them up to repay Canada in different ways.”
McCallum told the Vancouver Sun in November the Liberal government is “certainly considering changing” the Immigration Loan Program.
What is there to consider?
It’s easy to understand why desperate people accept the loan — drowning people will take any hand out of the water. But it’s hard to understand why we force them to.