Are the Liberals gaming the refugee file for partisan purposes?
During the 2015 federal election, the Liberal party promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by December 31 of that year. The pledge offered voters a sharp contrast with the Conservatives, who were failing to meet their more modest target of 10,000 refugees over three years. In response, the Tories said they would speed up admissions and resettle 10,000 refugees by the end of 2016.
Too little, too late: Justin Trudeau’s pledge captured the imagination of Canadian voters, serving as a symbol of the openness and generosity he promised to bring to government.
Six months after the Liberals came to power, where do things stand on the refugee file? Depends on who’s answering the question. According to Immigration Minister John McCallum, who testified this week before the Parliamentary committee attached to his portfolio, the plan has been a roaring success. Not only has the government brought in 25,000 refugees, as promised, it will have admitted another 25,000 by the end of this year. McCallum claims that 98 per cent of the refugees are now living in permanent housing and, despite some challenges with language skills and jobs, “resettlement efforts are proceeding.”
That’s his version. Private sponsors of Syrian refugees paint a very different picture. Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who is helping put in place a national organization to help private sponsors of refugees, has called the government’s efforts to date “an extraordinary mess”. According to Sewell, about 9,000 groups have raised the funds required to sponsor Syrian refugee families — but are still waiting for them to arrive. “We think they have deposited into charitable accounts at least $200 million,” Sewell said. But without the go-ahead from federal officials, the families they want to help cannot come to Canada.
Ottawa is prioritizing government-sponsored refugees. While the initial target group of 25,000 was a mix of privately-sponsored and government-sponsored refugees, the next group of 25,000 is coming to us solely through the public purse. And they will depend heavily on public funds for their needs — unlike privately-sponsored refugees, whose costs are covered for a full year by the groups that pledge to support them.
Government-sponsored refugees receive payments from Ottawa to help them establish and sustain themselves after their arrival. In Ontario, a family of four gets a one-time payment of $5,455 and $1,508 a month; in B.C., it’s $5,440 to start, followed by $1,349 a month.
But many families have more than four children, which means the actual payments can run higher. The average refugee family size is six, and families with seven children are not uncommon.
Many of these families are using food banks to make ends meet. According to Gwen Bouchard of the Gloucester Emergency Food Cupboard in Ottawa, government-sponsored refugees are more likely to turn to organizations such as hers. “I think it is challenging for them and so that’s why we’re seeing them at the food bank right now.”
Moreover, the ability of many government-sponsored refugees to establish themselves economically differs markedly from those of privately-sponsored refugees. According to a briefing note to the Ministry of Immigration obtained by Canadian Press earlier this year, 67 per cent of approved government-sponsored refugees speak neither French nor English, compared with 37 per cent of privately-sponsored refugees. With wait lists for language training of twelve months or more, this means that their chances of finding meaningful employment are severely compromised before they even start looking.
And the average level of schooling for adult Syrian government-assisted refugees was found to be six to nine years. Roughly 90 to 95 per cent of government-sponsored refugees from Jordan have not finished high school. “Anecdotally, reports from visa officers abroad indicate that work experience is largely low-skilled and almost entirely limited to males,” the briefing note concluded.
So it’s clear that government-sponsored refugees will be much more likely to depend on Canadian taxpayers for years to come. From the moment they are selected to come to Canada, through their resettlement and adaptation to Canadian life, government-sponsored refugees will interact with, and depend on, the state. Bureaucrats — not private relief agencies, individual sponsors, families or religious organizations — will play a central role in their lives.
From this, many government-sponsored refugees can expect to absorb two messages: first, that government is their friend, and second, that the Liberal government is their good friend. One could hardly blame grateful refugees for returning the favour by voting Liberal down the road.
So, by prioritizing government-sponsored refugees, the Liberals open themselves to charges that they are politicizing Syrian refugee resettlement for partisan benefit. But they’re not just doing this with refugees: The Liberals are loosening the criteria for immigration as well.
For example, immigrants aged 14 to 64 or younger will no longer have to display proficiency in English or French. Now, the cutoff will be ages 18 to 54. Most Canadians now work well into their 60s — and you need language skills to do so. So the new rules increase the probability that newcomers will lack those skills, will be unable to work, and will end up depending on the government for economic assistance.
Canadians want to help Syrian refugees, but this crisis should not become a partisan tool for the government. With so many private sponsors standing by ready to help, there is no reason the Liberals cannot include them in the mix, as they did with the initial group of 25,000 refugees.
The cost — and the credit — for settling Syrian refugees should not be borne by the state alone.
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