Syrian refugees: 4 things MPs heard about the Liberals' resettlement plan

Landlords taking advantage of Syrian refugees. Gaps in dental coverage under the interim federal health care program. The burden placed on refugees who have to pay for their travel costs. Those are a few of the issues raised as MPs study the government's effort to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees.

MPs heard concerns about abusive landlords, gaps in the interim federal health program

The Trudeau government's initiative to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees will continue to be scrutinized before the Commons committee on citizenship and immigration until June 21. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Landlords taking advantage of Syrian refugees. Gaps in dental care under the interim federal health care program. The burden placed on refugees who have to pay for their travel costs.

Those are a few of the issues MPs on the citizenship and immigration committee have heard about as they spent the past month questioning federal officials, private sponsors, resettlement agencies and refugees themselves about the government's efforts to resettle 25,000 people displaced by the Syrian conflict.

An extraordinary amount of government resources were deployed in a period of four months, from November to the end of February, in an effort to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees. In the three months since the Liberal government reached its goal, about 2,580 more Syrians have arrived in Canada as part of the ongoing efforts.

The Liberal-dominated Commons committee had originally agreed to continue its study until June 7, at a cost of $39,200, but last week MPs decided to extend that by another two weeks — until June 21, days before the House is expected to adjourn for the summer.

Private sponsorship groups who have raised thousands of dollars to support refugee families have been vocal about the slow pace of arrivals after the initial 25,000 target was met, a complaint the government says it has moved to address in recent weeks.

Here is a closer look at four other things MPs heard about the Liberal government's Syrian refugee plan:

1. Lack of affordable housing

Experts told MPs that finding permanent housing was one of the "most challenging" parts of the government's plan to resettle 25,000 refugees.

"It took an average of five and a half weeks to move the newcomers from temporary housing into their own homes," said Mario Calla, the executive director for COSTI Immigrant Services, an agency with 17 locations in the greater Toronto area that helped resettle some 1,800 Syrians.

Calla said while Canadians have long complained of the lack of affordable housing, the resettlement of Syrian refugees was further proof that this is a "serious" problem.

"The rental costs are in excess of 50 per cent of their income," Calla said. "It is generally accepted that for housing to be affordable, it should consume less than 30 per cent of a person's income."

A Syrian refugee family is greeted by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, 2nd from left, federal Immigration Minister John McCallum, 3rd left, and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, centre, at the Welcome Centre in Montreal, Dec. 12. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Emily Woods, the sponsorship program officer for Action Réfugiés Montréal, a small non-profit organization funded by churches and individuals, said while the overall housing experience has been "positive," several housing challenges remain.

"Some families have faced challenges when meeting with landlords, or were left with no housing at the last minute after landlords signed multiple leases with families for the same housing unit."

"In one particular case, a family was asked to pay for a full year of rent up front," Woods said.

2. Paying for travel costs

Both Woods and Calle, who appeared before the committee on different dates, urged the government to waive all travel costs for Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada before Nov. 4. and do away with the federal loans offered to other refugees to help pay their costs.

As CBC News reported in March, Immigration Minister John McCallum said the Liberal government was considering paying travel costs for all refugees resettling to Canada in the future — an option that would come at considerable cost to the federal government.

"Transportation loans are a huge burden on families. It is putting them... in an additionally vulnerable position upon their arrival," Woods said.

"Historically these loans have had a crushing impact on the ability of refugees to make ends meet from month to month," said Calle from COSTI.

"We urge the government to extend the waiver of the loan program to all refugees," he said.

David Manicom, a senior immigration official, confirmed before the Commons committee that the Immigration Loan Program continues to be "under active review."

3. Gaps in dental care

The Canadian Dental Association urged the government to review the dental policies of the interim federal health program so that refugees can have "immediate access" to basic dental care.

The Liberals restored expanded health benefits for refugees and asylum seekers on April 1, but according to Randall Croutze, president of the CDA, some shortcomings exist.

"The strict limitations of the program are not in line with the accepted best-practices of care," he told the committee.

Croutze said the association wants the government to do away with the requirement to submit a pre-authorization form for fillings, and to expand its coverage to include stainless steel crowns and certain x-rays not currently covered.

A young Syrian refugee looks up as her father holds her and a Canadian flag as they arrive at Pearson Toronto International Airport in Mississauga, Ont. Dec. 18, 2015. Many refugees, especially young children have been lacking dental care. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

"Refugees, especially children, who have been lacking consistent dental treatment, preventive care or fluoridated water have a host of problems that may require further treatment beyond what the IFHP affords," Croutze said.

According to Croutze, many dentists have come forward to help Syrian refugees by providing them with free screenings and pro-bono care.

"However, relying exclusively on pro-bono work is not sufficient to address the oral health needs of this cohort of new arrivals," Croutze said.

4. 'Intense' coordination

Senior departmental officials told the committee that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada will present sometime in the fall a report on what the government learned in resettling 25,000 people in a period of four months.

David Manicom, a senior immigration official, said one of the reasons the operation was successful was because it was the "most intense interdepartmental coordination effort" he'd ever seen.

Officials in the immigration department worked jointly with the Canada Border Services Agency, Global Affairs Canada, National Defence, Public Safety and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"I think that was a lesson which, if we're doing an operation like this again, we would replicate to some extent," Manicom said.

The Commons committee on citizenship and immigration continues to hear from witnesses later today.