by Ray Hudson
Surrey is the top city for resettling refugees, having taken about 28% of the Government Assisted Refugees (GARs) coming to BC since 2010. From 2010 to 2013, 28% settled in Surrey, 22% in Vancouver and the rest settled throughout the Vancouver region. But within six months of arrival they have to start repaying government transportation loans. This is a serious and unnecessary impediment to the effective settlement of many refugees at a time when they are most vulnerable. However, on the municipal scene Surrey and Vancouver are two cities test-driving a solution for more effective refugee resettlement programs.
But first we look at the negative impact of the federal government practice of forcing refugees to begin repayment of relocation loans, a practice that all municipal politicians across Canada want abolished.
“We’re asking the poorest of the poor, refugees coming to this country to start out with up to $10,000 or more debt for most families, with a requirement for them to begin paying back that loan after being here only six months,” laments Surrey Councillor, Judy Villeneuve. “After that there will be interest charged on the remainder of the loan. Canada, through the UN, has agreed to bring people here from war-torn countries. We should be doing everything we can to get them settled. But what we see is the refugee having to use the government provided, first year’s settlement funds (which are intended to help with their rent, food and costs towards employment) to start paying back these ‘Transportation and Settlement’ loans”
Villeneuve added that since many refugees have very negative experiences with government, and are fearful of it, they are not going to explore how they can get these loans extended or anything else.
“Many of them have gone through tremendous trauma and suffer major physical and mental health issues,” said Villeneuve, “and I can’t believe that one of the wealthiest countries in the world, would put this kind of burden on the refugees that we have agreed to take.”
It is becoming an election issue across the country underscored by the fact that the Union BC of Municipalities and all the councils across Canada have unanimously supported the elimination of this payback requirement. Despite this the government has said they’re really not going to look at it at this time. Subsequently, despite the onerous requirements around conducting petitions the city has gathered almost a thousand names on a petition from people in those communities.
“I’m really proud of the work that the Social Policy Advisory Committee members have done,” said Villeneuve, “along with those other people who made the effort to get these petitions out, get the names and try to educate the community on this issue. We’ve had no negative comments back once people understand that these are the Government Assisted Refugees that are the poorest of the poor refugees coming to this country.”
On The Positive Side, The LIP Programs
The Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) is described on the website as “a consortium of government, public and private institutions, business, non-profit and community agencies working together to strengthen the integration of newcomers and build a more inclusive and welcoming city.” Surrey and Vancouver are the only two cities in BC test-driving the programs funded into March 2016 by Citizenship & Immigration Canada.
“In Surrey we have almost 30 organizations in our LIP roundtable,” said Villeneuve. “We’re just two years into the program but we’ve applied for another three years to continue the process and once we have a plan in place we’re going to be able to try and implement the recommendations.”
The Surrey LIP program is co-chaired by Judy Villeneuve and Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, and has a number of initiatives underway, along with a partnership with Simon Fraser University which is leading a refugees settlement priority research project for the Surrey LIP.
“Local refugees have been trained as researchers for the project,” said the Councillor, “and the research findings are going to inform the development of a strategic plan and so today we’ve actually done a mapping of settlement services in Surrey, so we know what’s here to help with refugee settlement. There’s an immigration integration research project which is basically finding out how newcomers perceptions of Surrey as a welcoming and inclusive community really are, and a labour market research project we’re working on right now to see how we can build some partnerships in the business community to help employ new Canadians.”
The LIP program is designed to deal with government and privately sponsored refugees. The private sponsors often don’t have the ability to actually give the tools necessary for refugees to get their lives off the ground. They bring them here, they can give them food and shelter most of the time, but they can’t give them the services they need which might be English language training, how to develop the skills to live in an urban environment, how to get their children connected to the school system and to get the support that they need within the school system, and to learn how to do resumes and get into the employment market.
“Our settlement services do all of that,” said Villeneuve, “and the people who sponsor refugees sometimes connect them to those services, but that’s not always the case. The LIP will try to make it easier for the refugees to, generally, get the services they need.”
One thing missing in the refugee equation, according to Villeneuve, is regional planning.
“We need to ascertain how many people we are able to take given the current funding level of organization and settlement fees,” she said. “With the province announcing a million dollars for refugee assistance, they need proper planning to focus on supporting service organizations that are actually going to be dealing ‘face to face’ with refugees and their issues and housing, and that the money goes to those cities that are actually going to accommodate the refugees.”
“We need to be as responsible as possible to ensure that people in the community are welcoming as well and that we have the support funds for our organizations which are often already at capacity dealing with the programs that they have, or dealing with program cutbacks,” she said. “There has been quite a bit of money cutback on programming for settlement services so I think we have to be really careful about advocating on behalf of our organizations that the federal government provides the funding necessary to settle refugees in a positive manner, and that they will have an opportunity to connect to the community.”
“I think there had been such a positive response to this initiative,” Villeneuve said, when asked to characterize her experience with the LIP program. “With almost $600,000 over two years, we’ve been able to find very good consultants to do the research. There was a lot of enthusiasm from people representing many different cultures within the community to participate, so we now have that round-table of advisors who are spokes-people for their communities. For me it was really a highlight that people wanted to get involved. They wanted to communicate back to their community, in their own language, what is going on in the program, and that understanding their needs, we are going to focus on key priorities and be able to act more effectively over the next four or five years.”
For more information on the LIP program, please go to www.surreyLIP.ca