Working together for more than a “Half Welcome”

By Mike Hogeterp, Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan

In 2017, CPJ released the report A Half Welcome profiling some of the challenges of the refugee sponsorship system. As an advocate in the field I appreciated the report’s thoughtful illumination of well-known challenges in Canada’s sponsorship system. So we began working with CPJ staff to discuss the findings of A Half Welcome and the perspectives of refugee sponsors with parliamentarians.

The work of justice is best when it’s shared, so it’s been a pleasure for us to work with CPJ, World Renew, Mennonite Central Committee, and others to encourage Canada to make sponsorship programs more welcoming and just. We affectionately call this the Half Welcome advocacy partnership.

One of the issues addressed in A Half Welcome is the burden that repaying travel loans places on sponsored refugees. Refugees who come to Canada under sponsorship programs are required to repay the travel costs to bring them here. These travel debts can be quite large, particularly for families traveling from remote locations.

Until earlier this year, refugees were required to begin paying off these loans within 30 days of arriving in Canada and were charged interest on the balance owing. We know from front-line refugee workers that this financial burden is overwhelming for refugees who often need to learn the language and many other things before getting into the job market.

Small steps in the fight for justice

Our coalition brought this issue of travel loans to conversations on Parliament Hill. Other refugee advocates and citizens around the country raised the issue with MPs in a petition and online action alerts. In fact, in our little shop, our joint action alert on travel loans got some of the best engagement we’ve ever seen!

Earlier this year, the Canadian government responded to all of this advocacy. They acknowledged that travel loans burden refugees and moved to delay the start of loan repayment from 30 days to one year and removed the interest on the loans. For newcomers with thousands of dollars of debt, these small changes are helpful and worth celebrating.

Nevertheless, these changes don’t fully eliminate the burden of travel loans. One of CPJ’s founders, Gerald Vandezande, often reminded us that justice comes in small steps. These small changes to refugee travel loans are an example of that truth. These changes reduce hardships and are some of the many steps for justice and welcome for refugees.

Together we’ve helped to make some of this change, and our Half Welcome advocacy partnership will continue to seek justice and welcome for refugees.

Maintaining Momentum

Canada has just come through a period of resettling a historic number of refugees in response to the crises in Syria, Central Asia, and East and Central Africa. In the next three years the Canadian Government and private sponsors will settle approximately 30,000 refugees per year. Canada’s good efforts over the last few years are important – the momentum for #RefugeesWelcome needs to continue and grow.

One of the common challenges to welcoming refugees to Canada is public opinion. Negative public opinion and a lack of public support for refugee resettlement makes governments wary of investing political capital and public resources in it. The controversies related to irregular border crossings (most notably at the Canada-U.S. border in Lacolle QC) and apparent spikes in asylum claims create narratives of suspicion towards refugees – whether they be claimants or sponsored refugees.

Even as the numbers of irregular arrivals have dropped, these narratives have slipped into media spin and partisan politics that contribute to negative public opinion for refugees. For this reason, it is important to share positive stories about the good that refugees and other migrants bring to our shared lives in Canada.

That’s why our Half Welcome advocacy partnership is planning a media and op-ed strategy targeted at policy makers and shapers. We’ll continue to encourage church communities who have experienced the gift of having refugees in their lives to share their stories with policy makers and their friends. We hope that this work of building a positive narrative will contribute to thoughtful debate in Canada about our responsibility for refugee welcome in the 2019 federal election campaign. All this is to say – CPJ supporters and churches and communities in our extended networks will be hearing more from this partnership. Stay tuned!

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