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Senate committee calls on Ottawa to do more for refugee integration

Senators Salma Ataullahjan, Deputy Chair of the committee, right to left, Senator Jim Munson, Chair of the committee, and Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, release a report by the Senate Committee on Human Rights titled Finding Refuge in Canada: A Syrian Resettlement Story during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

One year after the federal government's refugee resettlement effort kicked into high gear and with many Syrian refugees about to transition from federal income assistance to provincial support, a Senate committee says Ottawa must do more when it comes to language training and child care and cannot offload its responsibility onto the provinces.

The Senate Committee on Human Rights, which has been studying the integration of newly arrived refugees since April, released its report on Tuesday in Ottawa.

Senator Jim Munson, the committee chair, said the federal government and Canadians can take pride in the resettlement of more than 35,000 Syrian refugees in this country since November of last year. But the senator cautioned a great deal of work is still to be done and many concerns addressed. "We can't abandon them," he said of the refugees. "We can't allow indifference to set in. We need to do more to help them on their next resettlement steps."

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The report made 12 recommendations. It said the federal government should provide more funding for language training and ensure refugees have access to it immediately after they arrive. The committee called getting into the classes "a cornerstone for successful integration," but said it heard from refugees about lengthy waits and trouble finding work because their English or French was limited. Child care for parents going to classes was also an issue for some, particularly women.

"Limited language skills pose a formidable obstacle," Senator Munson said.

The committee also recommended the federal government develop a plan to address the mental-health needs of Syrian refugees who have endured trauma. It went on to say Ottawa should ensure the Canada Child Benefit is processed more quickly to ease refugees' financial hardship, and it should replace refugee transportation loans with grants.

The committee said Ottawa waived transportation loans for Syrian refugees who arrived between early November, 2015, and the end of February, 2016. However, it said Syrian refugees who came to this country outside those dates – as well as refugees from other countries – must still repay their travel costs, creating a two-tier system.

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The Globe and Mail this week reported refugee advocates are concerned some Syrian refugees will be receiving less funding when their first year in Canada is up, a timeline referred to as Month 13. The Immigrant Services Society of B.C. has said a family of three or more could receive $350 less per month when it shifts from federal to provincial assistance, because the federal program included a transportation allowance and housing supplement the provincial program does not. A refugee group in Toronto has said some refugees there could also get less money each month.

In an interview after the news conference, Mr. Munson said, "if there is a shortfall, the federal government should step in and match it." Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in a statement said it welcomed the report from the committee and would review all of the recommendations "with due consideration."

Immigration Minister John McCallum before Question Period told reporters the government recently invested $18-million in language training and created 7,000 additional classroom spaces.

The minister added that the federal government is reviewing the use of transportation loans.

Chris Friesen, director of settlement services with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., said in an interview that 5,000 people are waiting to get into language classes in his province. Mr. Friesen said the federal government should consider establishing guidelines that make clear how long a person must wait. He said using technology, perhaps to have refugees begin language training before they arrive, would also be beneficial.

Mr. Friesen said refugee advocates have long called for abolishing transportation loans, which can cause tremendous stress for refugee families. He said mental-health supports for Syrian refugees who have endured trauma are also badly needed.

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"On the one hand, we're choosing refugees on the basis of vulnerability criteria, referred by the [United Nations]. And one of them is … mental-health issues. But we're not providing them with the necessary support … to help them fully integrate into Canadian society, both economically and socially," he said.

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