Canada Must Pay Attention to Refugees in Poverty

Newcomers to Canada, including refugees, experience poverty at a troubling rate.

While the level of poverty among refugees remains unclear, our 2016 report on poverty in Canada reveals that 34 per cent of new immigrants and refugees live in poverty.  

Poverty is detrimental to anyone who experiences it—Canadian-born or immigrants. However, many immigrants such as refugees have uniquely complex circumstances (e.g. language barriers and poor social support) which predispose them to poverty.

The federal government is working to address poverty in Canada. Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development, Hon. Jean-Yves Duclos, announced plans for a Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy. The Minister also released a discussion paper on the strategy last October, following on the mandate letter from Prime Minister Trudeau to address poverty, as experienced in a number of policy areas, such as housing, education, and health. The strategy will also examine measures, targets, and groups most impacted by poverty.

Citizens for Public Justice commends the government’s initiatives. Since 2009, CPJ has co-led the Dignity for All campaign, which calls for the development of a national anti-poverty plan. As the campaign indicates, however, we must move beyond poverty reduction. Poverty eradication should be the aim of government efforts.

Thus, the strategy must reflect the realities of highly vulnerable groups, especially refugees without strong social support in Canada. While the discussion paper identifies that “recent immigrants” are vulnerable to poverty, it does not specifically address refugees’ challenges with poverty.

While the government must tackle poverty among all affected Canadians, it is important to view it as a social issue that affects some more disproportionately than others. Government anti-poverty initiatives may not benefit refugees if they do not acknowledge how poverty impacts refugees quite differently from other poor Canadians.

Government Response: National Housing Strategy

Consultations on a National Housing Strategy were organized last year, and this is a welcome development. Addressing homelessness and the need for safe, affordable housing are vital components to alleviating refugee poverty. With the end of their sponsorship period in sight, many privately-sponsored refugees may have to rely on social assistance to cover living expenses. The Senate Committee on Human Rights has expressed concerns over this development, urging the federal government to ease refugees’ financial burden.

The committee recommends increased government funding for language training, which should be immediately available to refugees upon arrival to Canada. Instead of requiring refugees to repay loans with interest, the committee suggested grants as a replacement to loans.

This is significant for refugees in poverty. Many who currently need to repay travel loans cannot attend language classes effectively to improve their prospects of a better job. Instead, they remain occupied with their current work, and their experience of poverty may linger.

Rights-Based Approaches are Key to Poverty Eradication

These barriers make refugees vulnerable to poverty. But affordable housing, education and training, childcare supports, and food security can significantly contribute to anti-poverty goals. The Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy must incorporate a rights-based approach. This approach must be informed by the experiences and needs of newcomers, because they are best able to share their experiences of poverty, to effect great policy changes.

Canada has been very supportive of refugees. We have sheltered those who have fled persecution, and amid current global crises, we have still chosen to welcome those who seek refuge. Our good work must also continue with those whom we have welcomed, to ensure they gain some financial independence. Canada must fully exercise its leadership role in refugee humanitarian support on the home front as well.

Bolu is CPJ's Public Justice Intern

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