Liberals' waiving of travel costs for Syrian refugees created 2-tier system
Syrians who arrived prior to Nov. 4 and refugees from other countries must cover flights, medical checks
The first letter, dated Dec. 1, arrived before Christmas, while the second came just after the holiday. Both were from the government. Zouvik Baghjajian had been living in Canada for nearly five months by then, adjusting to her new life away from Syria.
She still could not get over how quiet it was near her new home, a tidy two-bedroom apartment in a suburban Toronto neighbourhood she shares with her husband and three children.
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"Very peaceful. No bombs," Baghjajian said.
The letters, though, had their own impact. They were notices from Collection Services, part of the Department of Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees, informing the family they owed $8,892 and were already close to $500 in arrears.
"We were shocked," she said. "This is a huge number. Huge price. Why?"
In fact, the bill was for the cost of flying the family to Canada from Lebanon and for the required medical checks done before they left.
It's estimated dozens of Syrian refugees are receiving similar notices, advising them that they are starting out their new lives with a debt to repay, which can be as high as $10,000 for some. They have between one and six years to repay the loan, depending on how much they owe (Baghjajian and her family have six years to pay off their loan in monthly installments of $123.51, but interest begins to accrue after three years.)
It usually takes the government about three months from the time refugees land to set up a loan account and send out notices, so by the time refugees get the first notice, they are often already in arrears.
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The notices are going out in spite of the fact that the government waived the transportation loan for Syrian refugees arriving in Canada as part of its election promise to bring 25,000 refugees here.
But the exemption only includes those who arrived in Canada after Nov. 4, 2015, when the Liberals came to power.
"It is like a football game," said Aris Babakian, a former judge with the Citizenship Commission and an active member of Toronto's Armenian community who is helping to settle some of the hundreds of Syrian refugees arriving in that city. "In the middle of the game, suddenly the referee changes the rules."
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Babakian calls the move arbitrary and unfair.
"We should not discriminate against these poor refugees who came from the same country, who suffered the same trauma. And now we are going to create a hierarchy between the refugees."
Speaking Tuesday morning at the Liberal cabinet meeting in St. Andrews, N.B., Immigration Minister John McCallum said the airfare repayment policy could change for all Syrian refugees.
"This is one of the things that we will reconsider," he said.
"We only came to power on Nov. 4, so our policy affected the post-Nov. 4 refugees, but we will consider whether we should make a special case for the pre-Nov. 4 refugees."
Last November, an immigration official told The Toronto Star that waiving the loans would help those who "have lost everything they have and will not have financial resources for some time."
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"Canada is upholding its humanitarian tradition by offering help and protection to those most in need. This includes waiving the issuance and repaying of immigration loans," Line Patry, a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, told the Star in an emailed statement.
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Refugee organizations have criticized the loan program for years and have called on governments to end the practice. The government, for its part, has said it is reviewing the program.
Canada is one of only three countries (the U.S. and Australia are the other two) that charge for transportation and is alone in adding interest to the debt.
A government analysis made public just before Christmas concludes the loan repayment program creates "stress" and hinders refugees' ability to pay for basic necessities like food, clothing and housing.
Some, the report says, take minimum-wage jobs to pay off the loan, missing out on the language training and other refugees services they need to help them integrate.
The president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, Loly Rico, says that is why the government should suspend the program now, instead of waiting months while it does a further review — especially since it is already exempting 25,000 Syrians.
"We welcome what the government did for Syrians," Rico said. "But what happens to the refugees who came before Nov. 4, 2015? What happened to the refugees coming from all the other parts of the world?"
When the loan program started in 1951, it was aimed at helping European immigrants move to Canada quickly because "their services were urgently required," according to the government report. Over the years, however, it became a loan scheme used almost exclusively for refugees.
The government has promised to tailor the loans and repayment plans to individual circumstances, but it's unclear exactly how or when that will be done.
Information about travel costs often doesn't sink in
Refugees are told of the loans as they are preparing to leave for Canada, but the report notes that officials typically spend only a few minutes on the loan program, in many cases trying to explain it to refugees who might not speak English or French well enough to understand.
Some, like Baghjajian, do not remember discussing the travel loans.
"You know, I signed lots of paper, but nobody said you are signing for the airplane [tickets]," she said.
Baghjajian and her family left their home in Aleppo quickly last year after a bomb crashed into their apartment building. Along with their belongings, they abandoned their jewelry store.
Now, the loan is a constant worry.
Baghjajian's husband, Hagob Boziaklian, works part-time for a jeweler, but the work is not steady, and he is having trouble with one of his hands.
"I will try to work, and maybe it will take a long time to repay it," Boziaklian said, "I cannot predict the future."
"Every night before we sleep, my husband says, 'What will we do?'"his wife adds.
They are hesitant to express any resentment toward the Syrian refugees who had the good fortune to arrive after Nov. 4.
Babakian, though, does not hold back.
"It is not fair. Either you do it for all of them or you don't do it. We brought these people here. We cannot create different classes of refugees."