Canada's policy of requiring incoming government-assisted refugees to pay back loans of up to $10,000 for their air fare, medical exams and documents is under renewed fire now that the Syrian refugee crisis has emerged as a federal election issue.
Advocates argue scrapping the repayment policy and turning the transportation loans into grants is one concrete step Ottawa can take right now to make it easier for refugees to adapt to life in Canada.
The City of Surrey – the top destination within B.C. for arriving refugees – is stepping up its years-long campaign to kill the loans, on which the federal government charges interest after three years.
"To arrive with a debt of $10,000 per family on their plate as they first start out here trying to get their feet on the ground in Canada is very, very stressful," Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve said.
She and other advocates say refugees fear deportation or refusal to reunify additional family members if they can't repay their transportation loans, and may scrimp on food, clothing, rent or furniture in order to make the payments to Ottawa.
They say that translates into greater pressure on food banks and other local services, and more difficulty integrating.
According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, many indebted refugees postpone skills upgrading while working low-paying jobs, and youth often struggle to finish high school while working, some abandoning plans for higher education.
"It makes no sense," Villeneuve said. "These are citizens that Canada has agreed to bring to this country. I just think it's immoral we are putting that burden on these poor people in one of the wealthiest countries of the world."
The federal government has rejected pleas from Villeneuve and others to reform the transportation loan policy since 2010.
An estimated $38 million in existing transportation loans to refugees is outstanding.
The repayment rate is 90 per cent and payments are used to extend more loans to new government-sponsored refugees.
Villeneuve is preparing to table a 1,000-signature petition circulated in Surrey urging Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to end the loans.
She said the City of Surrey is also asking federal election candidates to declare their position on the issue.
"Hopefully after the election we will have an MP that will sponsor a bill," she said.
Municipal leaders at the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities have previously endorsed Surrey's call to abolish the transportation loans.
Canada is one of just a few countries that make refugees promise to repay their relocation costs, and the only one that charges interest, according to Chris Friesen, settlement services director of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.