“I worry so much about repaying the loan. We don’t have enough money to pay it off within three years…” says Mohamed Bangura, a former participant of the transportation loan.
This is what a sizable number of refugees face when immigrating to Canada. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, “Over the last 10 years, about 26,000 refugees arrived in Canada annually.”
While Canada is a world leader when it comes to assuming the humane role of admitting refugees into the country, underneath this perception lies a darker reality.
Canada is one of just a few countries that demand repayment of a transportation loan granted to immigrants, which is meant to cover the costs of their travel to Canada and their immigration medical exam.
Canada also charges interest on this loan which can cause difficulty for refugees struggling to repay it. Rather than keeping the focus on adjusting to a new country and rebuilding their lives, refugees are racked with worry over not being able to repay the transportation loan.
“Refugees are desperate and eager to repay the loan, as a small gesture of tremendous gratitude and appreciation to the government,” says Chris Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia.
“Participants for the loan have told us, the repayment of the transportation loan starts as soon as they arrive in Canada,” says Fitsum Getahun, an employee at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba.
Getahun is an Asset Building program manager who runs an initiative dedicated to managing the loans given to newcomers.
“But while trying to navigate the system, learn the language, adapt, find employment and deal with other critical settlement challenges causes some so much stress,” Getahun says.
Furthermore, according to Access Alliance – an organization that provides multicultural help and community services – research “indicates that the burden of repaying the transportation loan is a major source of financial as well as mental health stress on GARs (Government Assisted Refugees); in turn these stresses can compound and worsen the vulnerabilities, mental health risks, economic insecurities, and social stigma that GARs face.”
GARs struggle to fare as well as Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs), because “refugees sponsored by community groups are less likely to use food banks or rely on social assistance than government-assisted ones,” states an evaluation of Canada’s resettlement program.
Clearly, this demonstrates the urgency to adjust the transportation loan, possibly removing the interest rates included in it. Since Canada is playing the role of assisting refugees, then surely the help should remain fully voluntary without an agenda.
“In my opinion the transportation loans should be converted into grants. It does not make sense to rescue the most vulnerable refugees only to have them end up in Canada with a huge debt around their neck,” said Abdikheir Ahmed, the director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg.
“I have seen first-hand many of these refugees, a number of whom are single mothers, use their needed child tax benefits to pay back transportation loans,” Ahmed said.
The average loan costs $3090. Picture a refugee travelling with a family of six; or single mother with children. What does that amount to?
Additionally, picture what this person could have been escaping from: persecution; war; trauma. All of these factors influence a refugee’s ability to settle with ease.
Metropolis Canada, an international network for comparative research and public policy development on migration, diversity and immigrant integration in cities in Canada and around the world, states:
“Pre-migration contexts also affects subsequent post-migration health outcomes. In cases of war-torn home countries, for instance, post-traumatic stress disorder may be a potential health risk that needs addressing in post-migration context. In the case of family separations, mental health risk factors may be exacerbated. Those who have migrated to Canada as the only economic hope for a larger family in the country of origin bear a tremendous burden to be economically successful.”
Is it reasonable to add yet another roadblock to the many issues that a refugee already faces? Is it preferential to completely phase out this policy or simply adjust it?
The Canadian Council for Refugees recommends an adjustment to loan repayments to ensure the loan program is aligned with resettlement, settlement and integration policy objectives. They also call on the Governments of Canada and Quebec to absorb the costs of the transportation expenses for refugees.
This action would impact a refugee greatly and help them thrive without the burden of worrying about repaying an excessive loan in a short period of time. Other countries like the Netherlands and Sweden cover all medical and transportation costs without requiring prepayment.
Therefore, the question remains: If the solutions suggested above are not adopted by policy makers in Ottawa, can Canada continue to enjoy its international reputation as a humanitarian nation?