Liberals consider covering all refugees' travel costs as 1st budget nears

Privately sponsored refugees from Syria have to start paying their own airfare now that government-organized flights out of the Middle East have ceased, but Immigration Minister John McCallum says the government is considering paying for the travel costs of all refugees Canada will resettle in the future.

For now, privately sponsored refugees have to start paying their own travel costs again

The Ayash family from Syria pose for a photograph after arriving in Halifax on Monday. The family is being sponsored by a community group in Lunenburg, N.S., and will soon move into a home in the historic town. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Privately sponsored refugees from Syria have to start paying their own airfare now that government-organized flights out of the Middle East have ceased, but Immigration Minister John McCallum says the government is considering paying the travel costs of all refugees Canada will resettle in the future.

The last government flights arrived in Canada on Monday marking the end of the first phase in a plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees — a mix of government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees — by the end of February. The Liberals have pledged to resettle another 10,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees by the end of 2016.

Canada has been providing refugees and other newcomers with loans to help them pay for the costs of making their way here and required medical exams, but that decades-old practice could be changed by the upcoming budget.

McCallum, who has been reviewing the Immigration Loan Program, said that cancelling the loans is one of the options the Liberals are considering ahead of their first budget on March 22.

"There are many things that we, as a government, want to do in the budget," McCallum said in a phone interview with CBC News on Tuesday.

"So whether the full amount of that money is included remains to be seen, but that is certainly one option."

According to a 2015 government analysis, some $13 million immigration loans are issued on average each year, with newcomers receiving an average loan of $3,090. The Immigration Loan Program is funded through an advance of $110 million from the government's Consolidated Revenue Fund.

"The extreme option would be for the government to pay for all travel in the future," McCallum said. "Of course, that's the most expensive option."

"I think that will be in the budget one way or another," he said.

The most recent forecast shows larger than expected deficits of $18.4 billion in 2016-17 and $15.5 billion in 2017-18, even before adding billions in promised spending.

2-tiered system

Canadians who are sponsoring Syrian refugees complained that the Liberal government created a two-tier system when it decided to waive the travel costs for privately sponsored refugees who arrived in Canada after Nov. 4, after the Liberals were sworn into power.

"We were covering the travel costs for privately sponsored refugees from Nov. 4 to Feb. 29, because most of those came on the [government-organized] flights so we didn't charge them for that," McCallum said.

"But as of March 1, they will have to pay their travel costs."

While a final decision about scrapping the loan program has yet to be made, McCallum said the government is exploring other options.

Typically, refugees have to start repaying the loans 30 days after arriving in Canada, with interest kicking in after one to three years. 

But the government assessment of the 65-year-old program found that refugees are having a difficult time repaying the loans and recommended that the Department of Immigration make some adjustments, including providing interest relief and debt forgiveness where necessary.

"Another option would be to make it easier to pay it back either through lower interest or more deferral in repaying the loan," McCallum said.

1st phase within budget

When the government rolled out the details of its plan to fast-track the resettlement of Syrian refugees last November, it estimated the cost of resettling migrants at $678 million. That was nearly three times more the $250 million over two years the Liberals had budgeted for in their election platform.

To date, the government has asked Parliament for a total of $609.2 million over the next two years.

McCallum said the first phase of the resettlement plan came in within budget.

"We are under budget in the sense that we have not had to draw on any of our contingency reserves," the immigration minister said on Tuesday.

"Part of the reason for that is that we have not had to use the military bases which would have been an additional cost."

The government had initially made plans to temporarily lodge Syrian refugees at military bases in Ontario and Quebec, but decided they would be used as "a last resort," McCallum said.

"But that only covers up until Feb. 29 and there will be more funds coming soon, subject to budget approval for the remaining 10,000 [government-assisted refugees] or so," McCallum said.

The supplementary estimates for 2015-16 show the government asked Parliament for $429.8 million, which includes a $100 million grant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help those affected by the Syrian crisis.

The government is also waiting for Parliament to approve some $179.3 million for 2016-17.

It is unclear whether the department will ask for more funding beyond that. McCallum's office did not respond to a request for clarification from CBC News.

McCallum will be tabling the government's much-anticipated annual report to Parliament on immigration before March 9.

The report will tell Canadians how many newcomers the government will welcome in 2016-17.


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