'We can't abandon them': Senators urge more language, mental health supports for Syrian refugees

One year after the first wave of Syrian refugees arrived in Canada, the Senate committee on human rights will release a report today recommending steps to ease the resettlement process.

Federal allowances will end this month for 1st wave of newcomers to Canada

Syrian refugees settle into life in Windsor Ontario. After one year they count their blessings but face tough adjustment hurdles ahead. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

One year after the first wave of Syrian refugees arrived in Canada, the Senate's committee on human rights is urging the federal government to boost language training, mental health services and financial supports to ease the next phase of the resettlement process.

Releasing a report called "Finding Refuge in Canada: A Syrian Resettlement Story," committee chair Jim Munson said while the program has been a Canadian success story, the government and citizens must not be complacent. 

"We can't abandon them. We can't let indifference set in. We need to do more to help them in their next resettlement steps," he said during a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday.

The report recommends:

  • The minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship set and meet specific standards for processing times.
  • Improving the flow of information to refugees on the status of applications.
  • Connecting refugees with networks of supportive individuals in their communities.
  • Ensuring the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) maintain timely processing for disbursement of the Canada Child Benefit.
  • Replacing immigration loans for transportation expenses with a grant.
  • Increasing funds for language training, and providing accompanying child care to improve access for women.
  • Working with provinces, territories and community groups to enhance programming for youth.
  • Improving culturally appropriate mental health programs.
  • Identifying possible changes to facilitate timely family reunification.

The first full military planeload of Syrian refugees arrived in Toronto on Dec. 10, 2015, carrying 163 men, women and children.

They were welcomed by waiting volunteers and well-wishers, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and family members who had already arrived in Canada.

In the last year, Canada has brought in more than 35,000 government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees fleeing conflict and violence in the region.

After the one-year mark, the federal government's monthly living allowance ends for many families, which means they must support themselves or rely on provincial social assistance.

Challenges ahead

Many refugees are still struggling to find work, learn a language or find permanent housing.

Munson said the lack of employment can lead to isolation and the loss of dignity.

"You're part of the Canadian fabric, but you're still in a lonely place," he said.

Senator Salma Ataullahjan said the child tax benefit can mean a real difference to a family's finances, yet delays in processing and a complicated application process have become barriers to access that create financial hardship. 

From left, senators Thanh Hai Ngo, Jim Munson and Salma Ataullahjan release a report by the Senate committee on human rights titled Finding Refuge in Canada: A Syrian Resettlement Story during a news conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"These bureaucratic hurdles are regrettable, especially at such a critical time for refugee families," she said.

Ataullahjan also encouraged the CRA to engage in outreach activities to raise awareness about the need for tax filing to ensure continued benefits. 

'Help them to the end'

Senator Thanh Hai Ngo said it's not fair to simply transfer the financial burden on the provinces.

"That's not right. If you help them, you help them to the end. You don't leave them in the middle of the street and say, 'OK, that's it I've done my job,'" he said.

According to information provided by Dawn Edlund, IRCC's associate assistant deputy minister of operations, about 12 per cent of government-sponsored Syrian refugees have a job, while more than half of privately sponsored refugees have work.

Edlund acknowledged there have been challenges in addressing language training needs, but said approximately 87 per cent of eligible Syrian adults outside of Quebec had been assessed as of the end of August and 64 per cent had enrolled in language training at that time.

After additional funding was provided in June, preliminary figures show 95 per cent of government-assisted refugees are enrolled in some kind of language training, compared to 79 per cent of privately sponsored refugees.

Support services will continue

"It is also worth noting that while federal income support ends 12 months after arrival, access to settlement support services continues, which means language training and employment-related support services will continue," Edlund said in an emailed statement.

The Senate committee has been studying since April the integration of newly arrived refugees and the challenges faced by various levels of government, private sponsors and non-government organizations that provide services to refugees.

The committee held public hearings in Ottawa and carried out fact-finding missions in Montreal and Toronto.

An official in the office of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum said he takes the views of  committee members seriously and appreciates the work they've done for the report. McCallum is taking time to review the recommendations.