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Should refugees be welcomed to Canada with debt?

December 28, 2015

By Globe Editorial, Globe and Mail |

In what was at first presented as a compassionate gesture, the Liberal government announced last month that it was waiving the travel loans for 25,000 Syrian refugees. People who have lost everything will not be expected to repay the costs of transportation and medical exams they had incurred by being admitted into Canada – roughly $10,000 for a family of four.

Good. But on closer examination, this act of generosity raises questions about an inconsistent government resettlement program that has been hurting the vulnerable people it is meant to help.

Unlike the select Syrians, most refugees allowed into Canada each year are financed by government loans that they are obligated to repay – beginning within 30 days of their arrival, according to official policy.

There is no evidence that these refugees are any less deserving of the government’s timely and selective generosity. To be a refugee is to be in a vulnerable state almost by definition. The government’s Immigration Loan Program (originally developed in 1951 to expedite the flow of immigrant labour) is intended solely for those who are unable to pay for their transportation and medical costs, and in practice is used by a majority of refugees.

It’s arguable whether Canada’s refugee resettlement program should be in the money-lending business, with a collection agency that leans on people who are already under great pressure. It may be wiser policy for the government to absorb these relatively small humanitarian costs – with the expectation that the country’s coffers would be replenished many times over through the integration of people who arrive debt-free and can get on with the job of becoming citizens, workers, entrepreneurs and taxpayers.

But if the government insists on saddling refugees with a Welcome To Canada debt, the program should at least be redesigned. It is counterproductive and petty to demand payment within 30 days of landing when people face more pressing priorities like finding housing and work. At the very least, the debt repayment period should be spread out over many years and even decades. Otherwise, Canada runs the risk of compromising the futures and limiting the earning potential of new arrivals and their families.

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