Ottawa Criticized For Charging Refugees For Flights

Ottawa criticized for charging refugees for flights
Newcomers find it difficult to pay government back, says immigrant services group

CBC News
Last Updated: Thursday, December 27, 2007 | 6:16 PM ET

Non-profit agencies that help convention refugees settle in Canada are calling on Ottawa to stop billing those newcomers for their flights.

For several decades, the Immigration Department has sponsored select refugees to come to Canada. Then, Ottawa sends them a bill for their airfare.

“It's clearly difficult for them to pay because they don't have an income when they get here,” said Jim Siemens, a spokesman for the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia.

Siemens said he doesn't understand why Ottawa gives sponsored refugees one year's assistance for food and housing, but then charges them for the cost of the flight that brought them here.

For large families, airfare can reach $20,000, he said. The money is expected to be paid back within a year if the bill is less than $1,200. The maximum time to pay back loans over $4,800 is six years.

“It's really onerous. The amounts can be great,” Siemens said.

Joseph Troxler, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said refugees have been required to pay the government back for their flights since 1951.

He said the “transportation loans” were first introduced to assist people displaced by the Second World War.

“The program was meant to provide assistance to disadvantaged newcomers,” he said.

But it's “big money” for people like Kayvan Radbin, an Iranian refugee who arrived in Vancouver in August. “It's a whole year's rent. Even if I don't eat bread, I cannot save this amount of money. I cannot pay it back.”

Radbin fled Iran several years ago, after renouncing his association with the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, a group Canada considers a terrorist organization.

He spent months in a U.S. camp in Iraq, then was designated a convention refugee and flown to Turkey, where Canada selected him to be a sponsored refugee.

Only income is assistance

Radbin is receiving $705 a month in government assistance while attending school. He has no other assets or income. His bill from the government is $3,346 equal to a year's rent for him. Radbin said he is grateful to Canada, and would like to pay, but can't.

“I'm feeling free here in Canada. I love Canada. I am reborn here,” said Radbin. “But sometimes you know I borrow money for Skytrain (transit) tickets. How can I get this big money for a plane ticket?”

Figures provided by CIC show many sponsored refugees don't pay their bills. For example, in 2006/07, $13.1 million was paid for 5,039 plane tickets. That same year, though, $38.1 million was still owed from delinquent accounts. That doesn't include old debts that have been written off by the government.

Siemens said he and others who work with refugees would like to see the transportation loans scrapped altogether.

The worst effect, he said, is the anxiety caused by a big government bill, especially for refugees from countries where government is something to be feared.

“There's always things that can be changed in any program,” Siemens said. “I think that we as Canadians should be grateful that they came here and that they are going to make good Canadians.”

Troxler said while there is no “formal” review underway, the program “is being evaluated as we speak.”

Immigration Minister Diane Finley was not available for comment.