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Ottawa to modify immigration loan program to lighten refugee debt load

December 22, 2015

By Mike Hager, Globe and Mail |

Ottawa will adjust its immigration loan program to ensure government-sponsored refugees receive more help covering the cost of medical exams and flights to resettle here without being indebted for years – a change made amid criticism that Canada is the only country in the world to charge interest on such loans.

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister John McCallum said Tuesday a decision has not yet been made on whether the government will get rid of the travel loan program altogether and fully cover these costs, which can add up to $10,000 a family for all medical exams, travel documents and flights.

But in the interim, the government has agreed that the interest rates charged to refugees and the timeline for starting payments will be tailored to the financial circumstances of individual refugees. Ottawa has also committed to debt forgiveness in cases where it’s necessary.

Three weeks ago, the federal Liberal government said it would waive travel loans for the 25,000 Syrians slated to enter Canada over the next three months, but not for the thousands of other asylum seekers who resettle in the country each year.

The government posted an update Monday on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s website. It notes that “the department is committed to ensuring that the provision of financial support to refugees selected for resettlement to Canada occurs within a program structure that recognizes and accommodates their often vulnerable circumstances (including financial need) both preceding and immediately following their arrival to Canada.”

The department pledged to address the “challenges” with the loans and said it will have solutions “ranging from operational changes to fundamental modifications to the program’s design” by mid-2016.

An internal review dated from September, and also posted to the website, recommended the department do more to “support its humanitarian policy objectives and facilitate the resettlement of all refugees who do not qualify for a loan.”

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