Let's Stop Asking Refugees to Pay for Travel

By Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan

I recently married an American guy. My born-and-bred Canadian arrogance has died hard.

When before I often drew sharp contrasts between the U.S. and “the true north strong and free,” being married to my Michigander and learning more about the systemic affronts to human dignity in my own beloved country has blurred those sharp contrasts for me.

Which brings me to the ongoing refugee crisis. 

We’re so sure that we’re different from the U.S., with its rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric and scapegoating, that we don’t usually think about the pressures they live with that we’ve been isolated from. We are surrounded by water on three sides, and the fourth side is the “longest undefended border” in the world, with a superpower across the way.

Recently, the U.S. has cancelled the Temporary Protected Status for many refugees while public opinion has turned against them. As a result, Canada’s southern border has begun to experience just some of the migration pressure that the U.S. has been grappling with for a long time. It has not been a flood by any means. But Canadians are so unaccustomed to dealing with irregular arrivals (not “illegal immigrants” as some have dubbed them) that the movement of people across sites like Roxham Road in southern Quebec has created a national conversation.

The situation has led Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel to worry aloud that social license for refugee welcome could erode, and I agree with her. The fears that drive American anti-refugee sentiment are not absent from Canada. If immigration pressure increases here, our political will to welcome refugees may well begin to resemble the U.S. situation more closely. We are not immune to that fear. For example, I regularly see big-hearted people with poor information posting on Facebook, and it worries me.

We’ve enjoyed the kind of isolation that not even island nations like Australia or the United Kingdom have enjoyed, and for the most part we’ve been able to handpick who arrives on our shores—from our economic immigrant points system to our refugee system.

But instead of playing tough with refugees, the way to preserve the social license is to make sure they’re able to adapt as quickly as possible. If we underfund services that help refugees to learn our official languages, find jobs, and adapt to their new home, we will be creating the conditions for poor and isolated pockets of new Canadians. None of us want that situation.

One major barrier highlighted in “A Half Welcome,”  a report from CPJ, is the travel loans program. Most refugees arrive in Canada already indebted to the government by $3,000 to $10,000 for the costs incurred in bringing them to this land, including medical exams, travel documents, and plane tickets. They must begin repaying this loan within one year, when they have barely begun to regain their footing.

As the report, which surveyed many Sponsorship Agreement Holders, states, “the pressure that comes with loan repayment means that refugees will not have the opportunity to fully acquire the language and educational skills necessary to contribute more productively to their new communities.”

So here’s the proposal of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, and various partners, including CPJ: waive the loan repayment requirement for all refugees.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the more than 1,500 people across the country, from Victoria to Halifax, who have already spoken up with refugees to eliminate these travel loans. The statistics do not always show this positivity. Christian citizens are more likely to be suspicious of refugees, both in my husband’s country and in my own. But these friends give me hope.

Nina Schuurman works with newcomers directly at Micah House in Hamilton. “I see the immense financial strain on folks who are settling into our nation.” she said. “After all the trauma that comes with being forcefully displaced and needing to flee to a new country, I am an advocate for tearing down any barriers that prevent newcomers from settling here well.”

John Hiemstra, a professor at The Kings University in Edmonton, noted that “to demand that refugees—people who are defined as people who are ‘forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster’—repay travel loans at this vulnerable point in their lives is simply a violation of biblical justice.”

These advocates give me hope that churches will shape the immigration conversation in Canada with compassion, rather than suspicion.

Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan is Justice Communications Team Coordinator for the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue. 

Ask your MP to fully waive travel loan repayment for all refugees! Join the call at http://p2a.co/e51GnCr

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