Fees for refugees unfair, group says

Posted by admin on Jul 3rd, 2009

July 03, 2009. Lesley Ciarula Taylor, Immigration Reporter Toronto Star

Toronto immigrant advocates are campaigning to persuade Canada to cancel the transportation fees they charge refugees, one of the few industrialized countries that bills people seeking asylum. The loans can cost a family of four up to $9,000 and demands for repayment start arriving about three months after the refugees get to Canada, said Sheila Htoo, one of the researchers for the Access Alliance study that forms the core of the agency’s campaign. Htoo herself escaped a refugee camp in Thailand for Karen minority people from Burma by winning a scholarship to the University of Toronto. She arrived alone four years ago, at age 19, with a $1,300 debt for her plane fare and medical exam.

As a government-assisted refugee, which means Canada agreed to give her sanctuary from overseas, Htoo received $660 a month social assistance. With Toronto rent to pay and university expenses, it was tight.

“It simply isn’t enough money,” she said yesterday. “The government does a great job for refugees in bringing us here. And refugees want to repay their debts. It’s just sometimes they can’t right away.”

Stella Abiyo Mona, 27, a Sudanese refugee who also came on a U of T scholarship from a camp in Kenya, describes how the loan paper is the last thing Canadian immigration officials have a refugee sign.

“You are just so happy to be going to Canada, you say, `Fine, fine, fine,’ when they put the paper in front of you.”

The document is in English and French and, while Htoo and Mona are fluent, the language is bureaucratic and “official,” said Htoo. They doubt most refugees could understand the document.

“You’d agree to anything to get out of the country,” said Htoo, who had lived in camps for 10 years and had to pay a hefty bribe to get past Thai security. “They move you around all the time, like animals.”

In collecting refugees’ stories for the Access Alliance report, Htoo heard of families who skimp on food and lose sleep to pay back the loan. The repayment rate is 91 per cent for government-assisted refugees. With 7,500 of them a year, it represents an outlay by Canada of at least $10 million.

Canada and the United States require transportation loan repayments, although only Canada requires the principal and interest to be repaid. Most of the refugee-sponsoring countries such as Australia, Netherlands and Sweden cover the pretravel medical expenses and airfare.

Access Alliance is calling on the government to fully cover these costs for government-assisted refugees and forgive outstanding debt still owed.

The high repayment rate shows that refugees are “enthusiastic and eager” to repay the debt, Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesman Nicholas Fortier said yesterday. Anyone who can’t may request a review, he said.

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