by Salvator Cusimano Nath Gbikpi
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS - Buried in Prime Minsiter Stephen Harper's 2015 federal budget is a measure that would bar refugee claimants from accessing social assistance.
As Amina gathers her accounting textbooks and dresses her daughter for daycare, her husband, Walid — a logistics manager at a nickel mine — wishes her a good day over Facebook. They recently moved to their own apartment from the shared house they occupied since arriving from Somalia, after fleeing threats from extremists. Only a few months ago did a welfare cheque and some part-time work allow them to make ends meet while waiting for a decision on their refugee claim.
Meanwhile, Jane is wondering whether to spend her last pennies on toothpaste or bus fare to visit her aunt — the only person she knows in this country. A fight breaks out down the hall, and she’s reminded of the beatings she took back home because of her sexual orientation. She’s not going anywhere today. That’s been the story for the last year, while waiting to have her refugee claim heard by a judge: living in poverty, with little mobility, and in dangerous surroundings, Jane hasn’t found any reason to call this place home.
Amina and Jane have both claimed refugee status in wealthy, democratic, Western countries. The difference? Amina is in Canada, while Jane fled to the UK.
In Canada, refugee claimants can access social assistance on the same terms as Canadians the moment they pass through customs at YYZ; they also have the right to work. They can choose where they will live and where their kids will attend school — within the limits of their modest means.
In the UK, meanwhile, asylum seekers have minimal access to social assistance, far less than what British citizens receive. The policy on permission to work is so restrictive that they are effectively banned from working. The government also shunts them into “dispersal areas” — cities determined to be suitable for refugees — and puts them in pre-selected housing for refugees that observers have likened to slums.
What explains the difference between the Canadian and the British approach to refugees?
UK policy is driven by the assumption that most asylum seekers shouldn’t have access to fundamental facets of British society, like social assistance and the right to work, until they have proven their “genuineness.”
Meanwhile, in Canada, a crucial piece of legislation has ensured that refugee claimants have access to life-sustaining social assistance from the day they arrive. The Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act prohibits provinces from requiring any minimum period of residence to qualify for social assistance.
Buried in the 2015 federal budget, tabled on Oct. 23 as Bill C-43, is a measure that would erase this prohibition. Since the measure exempts citizens, permanent residents, human trafficking victims, and accepted refugees, it’s aimed squarely at one category of newcomer: refugee claimants. This legislation could make Canada more British when it comes to refugee policy — and that’s not a good thing.
On first glance, British policy might seem to make sense: why give people who have yet to prove the truthfulness of their claim access to our society? Why spend resources on people who could be sent home, anyway?
But far from justify the proposed Canadian legislation, the British experience cautions against it.
Denying social assistance and other benefits has delayed, even irreparably harmed, refugee integration in the UK. Even though nearly 40 per cent of British asylum claims succeed — not including people who successfully appeal rejections — it’s official government policy to prevent asylum seekers from integrating until their claim is approved, a process which often takes years. The British experience is that by the time asylum seekers are accepted, they have often lost confidence in the authorities, possess a meagre social network, and haven’t learned English.
In Canada some 55.5 per cent of claimants are accepted; the majority are here to stay. Social assistance allows families to put food on the table, send their children to school, and live alongside Canadians; without it, families will live in homeless shelters and depend on charity. Canadian society is strong in part because refugee claimants belong; we can’t risk losing that.
In addition, this is bad public policy. In the UK, many asylum seekers depend entirely on cash-strapped charities to survive, often even after their claims are approved. In other words, the cost of keeping them alive doesn’t disappear, it just shifts elsewhere. If the federal budget passes as is, any savings on social assistance will flow to the municipal level and to the health-care system. Taxpayers somewhere will foot the bill.
Furthermore, refugees will settle in provinces that haven’t yet implemented a minimum residency requirement, while avoiding those that have. This would distribute costs unequally among provinces, and overload the refugee determination system at certain regional tribunals.
This policy shift is neither humane nor prudent. If the government refuses to back off these measures, the provinces should publicly refuse to use their new-found power. They should even pass legislation permanently prohibiting a minimum residency requirement.
The alternative is unacceptable — leaving refugee claimants in Canada even worse off than their British counterparts, like Jane, who at least receive minimal support.
Canada should keep calm, and carry on, with its relatively sound social assistance policy that has given many refugees the opportunity to prosper and contribute to a strong, united Canada. To follow the UK is to move in the wrong direction.
Salvator Cusimano works at Romero House, an agency in Toronto’s West End that houses and assists refugee claimants. Nath Gbikpi works at Wesley Gryk Solicitors, a London-based immigration law firm.