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From Refugee to Welfare

The Toronto Star
By Max Berger
November 11, 1992


DURING THE election campaign, an area that was tread upon as gingerly as a freshly frozen lake by leaders of all political parties was that of immigration policy.

Yet if Canadians were to stop and inspect the domain of immigration department policymakers and bureaucrats, a few questions might be raised as to how wisely the taxpayers’ dollars are being spent.

Let’s take refugees, for example. The vast majority of refugee claimants to Canada are young men and women in their 20s and late teens. When they arrive on our shores they have two immediate goals – first, to narrate their personal histories of persecution to the appropriate authorities in order to be determined Convention Refugees and then given Permanent Resident (landed immigrant) status, and second to find a job through which they can support themselves and their families.

As far as the second goal is concerned, refugees soon find that Canada Immigration has erected a brick wall in their path. No refugee claimant is lawfully entitled to work until he/she has been determined to be a Convention Refugee.

This is a process that can take months or years; it varies from refugee claimant to claimant depending on factors such as allocation of courtroom space, complexity of the case, time delays in adjournments and in rendering decisions, a lengthy appeals process, etc.

In the meantime, virtually all refugees, excluding the few who are independently wealthy, are forced to head in one direction for support – the welfare office.

Thus refugee claimants who would rather work, and who would be able to find work, are forced on to welfare due to government prohibition banning them from working.

Until very recently refugee claimants were, in fact, allowed to seek employment very soon after arrival in Canada. In many cases, those arriving at the U.S./Canada border whose paperwork was pre-arranged by their Canadian lawyer could lawfully seek employment starting from their very first day in Canada.

Bill C-86, implemented in February, changed all that. Refugee claimants now are prohibited from seeking employment until their court date, months away.

The financial consequences of this immigration regulation are not insignificant. According to Peter Spatz, budget coordinator for the metropolitan Toronto Social Services Division, the projected cost of welfare payments to refugees in the metropolitan Toronto area alone for 1993 is $209 million.

This amount is divided among federal, provincial and municipal governments through a cost-sharing formula. Welfare payments to refugee claimants who have been in Canada for less than one year are 100 per cent funded by the federal government. This category would include refugees waiting for their court date who are banned by the federal government from working. A very sizable portion of this $209 million figure is paid to refugees who are not yet permitted to work.

What is the rationale of the change in policy implemented last February?

Some argue that barring refugees from quickly entering the work force panders to the political right who see refugees as taking away jobsfrom Canadians. Even were that the case, forcing refugees on to welfare would hardly be the appropriate political solution. In fact, refugees often take the jobs that Canadians won’t take.

If a recently arrived refugee claimant and a Canadian citizen were to apply for the same job, all things being equal in terms of qualifications, an employer would most likely select a citizen simply for the assurance of continuity of employment and pass over the refugee claimant with uncertain immigration status. The logic of the marketplace dictates that a refugee claimant would eventually land a job where someone with more permanent status has not applied. The myth or refugees taking away jobs from Canadians is just that – a myth.

Another line of argument is that in these recessionary times there are no jobs out there and refugees, even given the immediate right to work, would end up on welfare in any event. Of course, if jobs simply do not exist, the argument to allow refugee claimants immediate employment authorization is entirely moot. The fact of the matter is that many jobs, and especially many unskilled low paying jobs, are available.

We are saddled with a huge deficit which increases every time welfare is paid out to a refugee claimant who could otherwise be working. Can we afford not to allow refugee claimants, who can find a job, to work immediately upon arrival in Canada? Given that Canada has a higher than 50 per cent acceptance rate for refugee claimants, are we setting a good example for our future citizens by starting their life in Canada on public assistance?

Perhaps the policy of the former government was dictated by the belief that impediments to quick and easy employment would deter refugee claimants from reaching our shores. As the numbers of refugee claimants bear out, there is no such deterrent effect with the current availability of welfare. In any event, no such impediment ought to be erected given Canada’s commitment to accept refugees fleeing their own country due to a well-founded fear of persecution.

In fact, these is no logic to the change in government regulation on this issue implemented in February, 1993. There is a psycho-social toll placed upon young men and women who must sit at home and wait for the welfare cheque when they would be happy to enter the work force.

And society as a whole pays the price of seeing an already high deficit escalate further. Refugee claimants who want to work, and can find work, ought to be able to work, unless and until they have exhausted all appeal routes if their refugee claim is turned down. Welfare ought to be readily available for citizens, permanent residents and refugee claimants who cannot find work and financially qualify – as a last resort.

Instead, the government of Canada has made welfare for 30,000 annual refugee claimants the first and only choice.

Many of those who would lay the blame upon refugees for the drain upon our welfare system fail to recognize that any such drain is in large part the creation of government policy. There always will be a segment of the refugee population who will require social assistance – language barriers, psychological trauma associated with their persecution, apart from the economic conditions in the host country, may present an obstacle to employment. However, when a refugee claimant can find a job, but is barred from working and forced on to welfare – that is welfare abuse and it is abuse caused by the federal government itself, not by the refugee claimant.

Max Berger is a Toronto lawyer.


Max Berger is a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba and was educated at the University of Manitoba and York University. Mr. Berger is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. He has represented immigration clients from all corners of the world and in every area of immigration law.

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