Families flee to Canada for better lives, but the debt incurred makes it hard. Now advocates want policies changed to ease the process
by Suzanne Ahearne for The Vancouver Sun
Published: Thursday, July 24, 2008
VANCOUVER - Phillipo Kijori-Amisi remembers the day he decided not to wait for peace to return to his native Burundi.
He, his wife and infant son had fled from Hutu-Tutsi violence more than three years before and had ended up in a refugee camp in neighbouring Tanzania. His wife had given birth to two more babies and now they were five mouths to feed, in a country whose resources were already bursting from playing host to more than 470,000 Burundians in a decade of war.
He earned bits of money for extra food and water by repairing watches and radios for international personnel overseeing the camp.
Then, he was badly beaten and had his fingers broken in an outbreak of violence in the camp.
From his home in Vancouver where he and his wife Anitha Ngendakuriyo now live, he recalls the desperation he felt: "I asked them [UN staff] to help send me to another country. ... There was a meeting and it was decided that maybe the Canadian government could take us."
This is a scene being played out in refugee camps around the world. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are more than 33 million displaced people worldwide. Refugees, having escaped conflict zones, eke out an existence in these stressful, often violent, camps, waiting for an opportunity to go home or to resettle in another country.
The opportunity to move to Canada under the government-assisted refugee program is one widely sought after.
In the stressful and traumatic months, years and sometimes decades that precede an interview with a Canadian immigration official, most refugees have already decided that they would do pretty much anything to get their families out. So when they're offered plane tickets to a new life, most think nothing of signing papers that will put them on average $10,000 into debt for those tickets, in a currency they don't know the value of and to a country they know little about.
"That was the first time I heard about Canada. I never knew where was Canada," Phillipo said through a Kirundi-speaking interpreter.
"Some friends of mine said America was better than Canada. But I thought, I don't mind going to Canada, I just want to leave safely with my family."
Two months later, he met with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) officials visiting the camp.
"We were 500 people having interviews. You can see how God is great, how among those 500 people, we were chosen to come to Canada."
They were six -- with Anitha's sister, who went to Montreal -- among 96 in 2001 who gave their agreement to do whatever was necessary to come to Canada.
Globally, few dispute that Canada's refugee programs are generous. But at home, many are surprised to discover that our humanitarian policies do have a shadow side.
The onerous obligations of the refugee transportation loan -- which requires refugee families to pay back the cost of their flight to freedom, with interest -- is beginning to draw intense criticism as a cross-country campaign is launched by immigration, refugee and children's advocates. They are calling on CIC to repeal the loan policy and forgive all outstanding debt to refugees.
Anitha and Phillipo had been in Canada for a little less than a year when they received their bill for $13,000. They were living in rat-infested accommodations, now with four children, receiving the equivalent of provincial welfare rates as part of a one-year refugee settlement package that includes English classes, first-language assistance and a housing allowance.
They started making payments of $200 a month. That was six years ago. Today, now a family with seven children, they are still on social assistance. And they still owe $7,300, not yet halfway through their loan repayment obligation.
Often, it's not just the parents involved in repayment of the transportation loans. For refugee families to make their loan obligations, teenagers and young adults are expected to chip in to the family pot, often at the expense of their education.
Maria Baez was 18, just out of high school and registered in medical school in Colombia, when her lawyer father received the death threat that sent their family running. After six months in hiding, her father met with refugee officials at the Canadian embassy in Bogota. He was handed a 100-page dossier in English outlining his rights and obligations as a government-sponsored refugee to Canada. A family member tried to translate the bureaucratic language of the documents, with little success.
"So," says Maria, now 23, a server at the Old Spaghetti Factory and now on a waiting list for the nursing program at Langara College in Vancouver, "my dad decided, whatever it was, he would sign it. For good or for worse."
In the chaos of their first year in Canada, they forgot about the loan. Then in November 2004, a $14,000 bill arrived. Maria recalls the shared shock, now that they knew the value of a dollar. Maria's father had just found a minimum-wage job as a construction worker and her mother, also a lawyer, stayed at home with her two young boys and had set up a home-based daycare. Maria and her older brother contributed half their salaries to the family income. They committed to paying $250 a month on their transportation loan.
Then her father lost his job and Maria and her brother moved out of the overcrowded family apartment. To have enough to eat, they made weekly trips to the food bank. A local Mennonite church gave them clothing, food and sometimes cash so her brothers could pay for school field trips. They dropped their payments to $150 a month.
When they missed a payment, her parents soon discovered that interest was deducted from their next child tax credit or from their expected tax refund.
"It's very frustrating," said Maria, still contributing to her parents' income, "because you're expecting money to pay rent, go to school, pay transportation, pay for food and you don't get that money, and you get behind and you have to work more and you're not at home with the kids and you don't spend much time with the family, which is more important."
Adrienne Montani is looking very closely at how repayment of transportation loans is adding to the burden on refugee families struggling with poverty.
Montani is the provincial coordinator of the BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, known as First Call. The coalition of 80 organizations is behind a B.C. campaign to repeal the loan requirement, as one way to make an immediate and significant difference to refugee families.
An anti-poverty advocate for many years, Montani has been working to have B.C. welfare rates and federal child tax benefits raised, only to watch the depth of child poverty become more profound. B.C. child poverty rates have been the worst in Canada for five years in a row.
Now she is focusing on the refugee branch of the immigration department.
"The issue of the transportation loan repayment is an instance of harmful public policy that could make an immediate and significant difference to refugee families if it is repealed, and something the government could easily do in a short time frame," Montani said.
Refugee family poverty has been on the rise since changes to Canada's Immigration Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) came into law in 2002. Though the annual budget for government refugees has remained more or less the same for the last 10 years, and the government sponsors from 7,300 to 7,500 refugees a year, the kind of refugee has changed.
Abraham Abraham, director for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), says that in the 1990s, the bulk of the refugees Canada played host to were formally educated, integrated and got jobs within a few years.
But in 2002 it became Canada's policy to make more room for refugees who may have lived a long time in camps, have more complicated mental and physical health issues, have little or no formal education and have larger families.
Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for B.C.'s Immigrant Services Society, put it this way: "We are dealing with, on the one hand, philosophically speaking, people who are in urgent need of protection and settlement. But on the other hand, more and more people are questioning our ability to provide for them with adequate support. They face so many challenges."
When funding for refugees ends after what Abraham calls "Canada's generous hand-holding period" of one year, care and support for many of these post-IRPA refugees largely falls on the provinces, municipalities and donor organizations. And while paying back the federal transportation loans with interest, many are still living on social assistance, in subsidized housing, and using food banks and health care at a higher rate.
When refugees are illiterate and, like Phillipo and Anitha, they face a daily gauntlet of stumbling blocks that Friesen call "systemic speed bumps" for such basic tasks as getting into the right level of ESL class literacy, life is a huge challenge.
Through an interpreter, Phillipo said, "I keep getting these certificates from English class completion," and he showed one as recent as 2007.
"But I can barely read the certificate and I can't read the letters that come from the government asking me to do more and more things," he laughed with a dark humour.
"You kind of scratch your head sometimes, wondering," said Friesen. "Okay, so we've invited them. We recognize it's a humanitarian program. So why aren't we adequately funding it?"
The solution, he said, comes down to something pretty black or white: "Either we have to increase the funding [for refugees], or begin entering into discussions with the UNHCR to say we can't take any more of these complex settlement cases."
Asked whether the government is considering repealing the refugee transportation loan policy as a way to ease the financial strain on refugee families, Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesman Doug Callum said: "The notion is that the fund is a revolving one, and so repayments allow for future people to get loans out of the fund.
"I know there are groups that are calling for the loans to be in effect grants and at this time, the department is not looking to change the policy that way."
Outside their four-bedroom townhouse-style apartment, Phillipo and Anitha's seven children--from one to 13 years old -- are riding around on donated bikes and scooters. Outside most doors of this subsidized housing project, there are a few scraggly petunias and geraniums growing. Under their front window is a lush plot of fast-growing beans.
Anitha still plans to have more children if "blessings" continue to come her way. And she remains hopeful: "In Africa," she said, "we were so much more poor than in Canada because here the government supports families and children. ... It's a different kind of poverty. Here in Canada we are better off than in Burundi."