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Most Syrian Refugees Coming To Canada Will Live Below the Poverty Line

The refugees counting on support from the Canadian government will receive, at most, $25,000 in their first year. After that, the support ends.
Photo via the Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand

While the Trudeau government gets feted for its efforts to take in scores of Syrians displaced by ongoing fighting, advocates are worried that the government isn't doing enough to support those refugees once they arrive.

One expert on migrant policy says the government funding is "woefully inadequate."

Families of refugees can receive a maximum of $25,000 CAD ($18,222 USD) per year, while single people will receive less than half that.


That support is available for the first 12 months of their stay in Canada or until they're able to take care of themselves financially — once they reach that point, the funding is cut off outright.

Financial support for refugees is tied to provincial social assistance rates, which are generally below the low-income cutoff rate — Canada's own interpretation of the poverty line — especially in high-cost urban centres like Toronto and Vancouver.

The Canadian Council for Refugees takes issue with exactly that, arguing that tying support to provincial welfare rates "causes huge challenges for newcomers" who are building their lives from scratch.

Related: The Government Can't House Syrian Refugees Fast Enough, So Canadians Want to Help

The $25,000 maximum for each family includes a start-up amount received upon their arrival, used to help them get their initial bearings and set up a household, and subsequent monthly payments for shelter and other basic needs.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada provided VICE News with breakdowns of how much those refugees can expect to receive.

Those payments mean a family of four in Vancouver would receive, on average, just over $20,000 per year, while a single woman would get just $10,000. The numbers go up in Toronto, where the average is $22,000 for a family and $10,100 for individuals.

While there is no clear agreement on what constitutes the 'poverty line' in Canada, anti-poverty groups have used the after tax low-income rate — that means, for a couple with two kids, anything below $34,742 per year.


According to rental website, the average prices of two-bedroom apartments in Vancouver and Toronto are $1,345 and $1,269 respectively.

Some medical services are also covered by the federal government.

"Making trips to the food bank is often something they have to do. It adds to people's stress, and makes things very difficult."

But financial support for refugees being pegged to that of welfare recipients is problematic since the two groups are usually operating in vastly different circumstances, executive director for the Canadian Council for Refugees Janet Dench told VICE News.

"[Refugees] do get some money to help them set up their house, but they're starting from scratch," she said. "For a Canadian on welfare, you'll have a bit of a step up in the sense that you already have certain possessions and furniture, and so on."

Welfare recipients will also typically have the advantage of being able to speak English or French and knowing their way around their community with an awareness of how to live on a budget, she said.

And while the assumption is that refugees should find jobs in order to improve their income, it might not be quite that easy. Statistics from December 2015 show that, depending on the province, the employment rate for immigrants sits between 56 and 80 per cent in Canada's cities.

Photo via the Canadian Press / Chris Young

Many refugees will be able to find work, however, as Canadian companies have been reaching out to the incoming Syrians with job offers. But the question remains what will happen to those who are unable to find work, especially in cities like Calgary and Edmonton that have been hard-hit by the plunging price of oil.


Migration law and policy expert Sharry Aiken, a professor at Queen's University, also believes the level of funding for refugees has always been "woefully inadequate and has indeed made it very difficult for newly arrived refugees to find suitable accommodation and hit the ground running."

This is particularly true, she said, in the case of families with young children.

Related: Syrian Refugees Say They Aren't Angry After Pepper Spray Attack in Vancouver

Those who arrived in Canada before November 4 — before the Liberals came into power — also have the added, sometimes crushing, burden of having to repay the government for transportation costs, which can be as high as $10,000.

Advocates worry that getting rid of the repayment requirement for some has created a two-tiered system, putting refugees who arrived earlier at a disadvantage.

"Many people really struggle with [the transportation loans]," said Dench. "We hear about people who don't have enough money to pay for heating in their homes, don't have enough for food to eat."

"Making trips to the food bank is often something they have to do," she continued. "It adds to people's stress, and makes things very difficult."

"When we say we want the most vulnerable, we don't choose people with PhDs."

A government analysis of the immigration loan program from September, which covers transportation and medical assessment costs, said for many, the requirement to repay the loan is a "source of stress and create additional challenges, such as the ability to pay for basic necessities."


"Impacts on settlement are also felt due to the need to have employment income to facilitate repayment, which makes it difficult for some to take full advantage of settlement services, particularly language training," the analysis said.

McCallum has said the government will consider waiving the repayment requirement for Syrian refugees who arrived earlier.

Related: Canada Probably Won't Bring in All the Syrians It Wanted to This Year

"We only came to power on November 4, so our policy affected the post-November 4 refugees, but we will consider whether we should make a special case for the pre-November 4 refugees," he said, speaking with reporters two weeks ago.

McCallum addressed the vulnerability of government-sponsored refugees, and admitted they have a harder time integrating than privately-sponsored refugees, in a press conference on Wednesday. A majority, he said, speak neither English nor French, don't know anyone in Canada, and arrive with relatively little education.

"There are many occupations that government-assisted refugees can find jobs in, and many already have, but because they tend to be non-English or French-speaking, so it'll take more time."

"But that is the whole purpose of the exercise. When we say we want the most vulnerable, we don't choose people with PhDs," he said. "We choose the most vulnerable people who are given to us out of these UN lists, and naturally it'll be a little more difficult for them to integrate."


But it's not a story of hopelessness at all, said the minister.

"There are many occupations that government-assisted refugees can find jobs in, and many already have," he said. "But because they tend to be non-English or French-speaking, so it'll take more time."

As those involved in bringing the refugees over have found their rhythm — the government is well on its way to hitting the 25,000 target by the end of February — settling them in once they arrive is the task at hand. The most challenging aspect of resettling families, which are often as big as eight people, has been finding affordable housing.

Related: Canada Wants to Double the Number of Syrians It Admits to 50,000

McCallum has been pressed on the issue repeatedly as reports have emerged of government-sponsored Syrian families being stuck in hotels for weeks on end, waiting as settlement agencies scramble to find accommodation. He insists the waiting periods are not excessive.

But recently, the situation became so overwhelming for settlement workers in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax that all four asked the government for a temporary hold on the steady stream of refugees into their cities.

"The fact that it keeps circulating points to this issue of how many Canadians tend to look for reasons to say refugees are getting more than they deserve."

For weeks, private sponsorship groups, which Aiken points out have "worked very hard to fundraise beyond the minimum level identified," have been offering to alleviate the burden by offering housing temporary basis for government-sponsored refugees, but on Friday, McCallum rejected the idea, which he said seemed perfect on the surface, but upon closer examination, wasn't very good.


"The government has a duty of care over government-assisted refugees," he said, adding that the government didn't want to "dislocate" refugees by making them move over and over again, and that people working in the resettlement agencies on finding housing shouldn't be diverted from their task.

Photo via the Canadian Press / Nathan Denette

While McCallum admits the housing problem is significant, he insists it's "manageable." His department is seeking funding from the private sector and meeting next week with representatives of the rental housing industry to get their advice. He also added that some developers have already offered subsidized housing to Syrian refugees.

"It always takes some time to set up large numbers of people arriving on our soil, so I think this is a normal process, but we're finding ways to make it go faster."

Despite the fact that these refugees are far from living in the lap of luxury, misinformation about how much money Syrian refugees are getting from Canada's federal government has been circulating for months, with viral campaigns claiming refugees are receiving more support than pensioners and those on welfare.

"Do government-assisted refugees get more income support and benefits than Canadian pensioners do?" reads a question-and-answer information sheet put out by Citizenship and Immigration Canada in response to the false claims.

"No. Refugees do not get more financial help from the federal government than Canadian pensioners do. A widely circulated email makes this false claim," it concludes.

"The fact that it keeps circulating points to this issue of how many Canadians tend to look for reasons to say refugees are getting more than they deserve," said Dench.